Proponents are calling the move toward decriminalizing all drugs a victory for social justice. Opponents are calling it a “hug-a-thug policy.” But one thing is certain: It’s unprecedented.
The Oregon legislature late last week passed a bill late that would reclassify possession of heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and other drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. The bill will also lessen the punishments and expand access to drug treatment for people without prior convictions for possession.
“We are trying to move policy toward treatment rather than prison beds,” said Republican state Sen. Jackie Winters. “We can’t continue on the path of building more prisons when often the underlying root cause of the crime is substance use.”
The historic bill passed in the state’s house and senate. It is headed to the desk of Gov. Brown, who said she will sign it once it undergoes a legal review.
Kayse Jama, executive director of a civil rights organization Unite Oregon, called the bill “a victory for Oregonians who have been targeted by law enforcement because of who they are, where they come from or what they look like” and a “victory for law enforcement officers, who will receive needed training and an opportunity to rebuild trust in the communities they serve.”
But Democratic State Sen. Betsy Johnson argues that the concept is soft on crime, calling it a “hug-a-thug policy.”
Related Story: The Obama Administration Wanted To Decriminalize Marijuana
“The proponents of these bills mistakenly believe that drug sentences damage people’s’ lives, but it’s the drugs that ruin people’s lives,” Johnson said. “I would like to end the odious practice of racial profiling, but I will not be associated with a bill that decriminalizes hard drugs.”
According to a report in the Washington Post:
Studies have shown that Oregon conviction rates disproportionately affect minorities. A 2015 study by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission found that African-Americans in Oregon were convicted of felony drug possession at more than double the rate of white offenders; Native-Americans were convicted of drug possession at five times the rate of whites.
Oregon has the seventh-highest incarceration rate in state prisons for African-American males, according to a 2016 report by the Sentencing Project, a prison-reform advocacy group. Black people make up 2 percent of Oregon’s population but represent almost 10 percent of the people incarcerated in state prisons as of 2014, the study found.
Groups Who Have Endorsed Drug Decriminalization:
- United Nations
- World Health Organization
- International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
- American Public Health Association
- Human Rights Watch
- American Civil Liberties Union
- Movement for Black Lives
- Latino Justice
- National Latino Congreso
- Organization of American States
The Effects Of Drug Decriminalization:
- Reduces the number of people arrested, incarcerated, or otherwise swept into the justice system, thereby allowing people, their families and communities to avoid the many harms that flow from drug arrests, incarceration, and the lifelong burden of a criminal record;
- Alleviates racial, ethnic and income-based disparities in the criminal justice system;
- Improves the cost-effectiveness of limited public health resources;
- Revises the current law enforcement incentive structure and redirects resources to prevent serious and violent crime;
- Creates a climate in which people who are using drugs problematically have an incentive to seek treatment;
- Improves treatment outcomes (when treatment is called for);
- Removes barriers to the implementation of practices that reduce the potential harms of drug use, such as drug checking (adulterant screening); and
- Improves relationships between law enforcement agencies and the communities they have sworn to protect and serve.