In an unprecedented move, Oregon is on its way to becoming the first state to decriminalize small amounts of hard drugs such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy, while also lowering the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor in some drug-related cases.
Two groundbreaking bills were passed by the Oregon legislature this week, and will go to the state’s Democratic governor, Kate Brown, for approval. House Bill 3078 reduces drug-related property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. It passed in the state House with a vote of 33-26, and in the Senate with a vote of 18-11.
House Bill 2355 seeks to decriminalize at least six hard drugs, as long as the user does not have any prior felonies or more than two prior drug convictions. It passed in the state House with a vote of 36-23, and in the Senate with a vote of 20-9.
Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland) told the Lund Report that he sees the criminalization of drugs as a major public policy failure, because it ignores the fact that addiction to certain drugs changes the physical structure of the brain, and should be treated as a health problem—as opposed to the current system, which labels users as felons, and sentences them to a life of rebounding in and out of the criminal justice system.
“We’ve got to treat people, not put them in prison,” Greenlick said. “It would be like putting them in the state penitentiary for having diabetes. … This is a chronic brain disorder and it needs to be treated this way.”
Both bills were supported by Sen. Jackie Winters (R-Salem), the longest-serving African-American woman in Oregon Senate history. During the Senate hearing, she silenced critics by referring to the current War on Drugs as “institutional racism.” The Lund Report noted that in addition to pushing for decriminalization, Winters has been fighting to decrease the prison population since 2011.
“There is empirical evidence that there are certain things that follow race. … We don’t like to look at the disparity in our prison system,” Winters said. “It is institutional racism. … We can pretend it doesn’t exist, but it does.”
HR 2355 also seeks to cut down on racial profiling among police. As the Portland Tribune reported, police would be required “to collect data on race and other demographic information during law enforcement stops,” and the Criminal Justice Commission would then “have the responsibility to analyze the data to identify any trends showing officers have singled out people with specific qualities such as the color of their skin.”
While law enforcement has worked to derail attempts to reform prison sentencing in the past, HR 3078 includes a provision that tasks the Criminal Justice Commission with providing local jurisdictions with $7 million for diversion programs. The bill would also reduce some mandatory minimum sentences for property crimes, and increase the number of prior convictions necessary for a felony offense.
Rep. Jodi Hack (R-Salem) was one of the few Republicans to support HR 3078, and she told the Lund Report that she has received threats as a result. However, she noted that the opportunity to keep families together, and to send drug users to a diversion program for help, instead of prison, was what anchored her support.
“We are putting addicts and nonviolent offenders into prison,” Hack said. “We in the U.S. are 5 percent of the world’s population, but 20 percent of the prison population.”
Oregon became the first state to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis in 1973, before becoming one of the first states to legalize it for medicinal use in 1998, and then finally legalizing recreational use in 2015. This raises the question—if Oregon decriminalizes small amounts of drugs such as heroin, cocaine and ecstasy, will other states follow suit?
The push for ending the failed “War on Drugs” appears to be gaining traction, as the most popular medical journal in the United Kingdom, the British Medical Journal, argued in November 2016 that “laws against drug use have harmed people across the world, while stressing that drug addiction should be viewed as a health problem and police involvement must end.”
As The Free Thought Project reported last week, the United Nations is now calling for the worldwide decriminalization of drug use and possession. A statement from the World Health Organization called for “ending discrimination in health care settings,” as well as various “marginalized and stigmatized populations.”
An example of the power of decriminalization can be found in Portugal, a country that decriminalized all drugs in 2001. As a result, drugs usage rates have declined, and there are now approximately three drug overdose deaths for every 1 million citizens.