Oregon lawmakers recently passed a bill that, according to The Washington Post, “decriminalizes possession of heroin, cocaine, and other drugs.” Naturally, others in the media followed suit – some even openly citing The Post – but most misleadingly use the term decriminalize. The bill does not make it legal to possess any amount of otherwise illegal drugs without a prescription – except, interestingly, peyote used for religious purposes. It merely lowers the classification of the crimes from felonies to misdemeanors – and only in some cases.
HB2355, Doesn’t mention controlled substances until Section 9 – a full seven pages into the eighteen pages of text. Up to this point, the bill establishes new training programs for law enforcement officers and correctional facility staff and adds a requirement that any officer who initiates a pedestrian or traffic encounter must record the demographic data of the person stopped as well as the time, date, reason, and disposition. The over-aim of the bill is to reduce strain on Oregon’s overcrowded prison system.
The amendments to standing drug laws may only be part of the bill, but they are a significant part. By reducing the severity of drug sentencing and providing rehabilitation services, lawmakers hope to address addiction as a medical issue rather than a criminal one. One supporter of the bill, Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland) explained the flaw in the current system to The Lund Report:
“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.”
Greenlick said that brain scans of people addicted to methamphetamine and heroin show the physical structure of their brains have been altered, and do not resemble scans from a person who is not addicted or someone who has never consumed these drugs. And while their brains may never come back to normal, with replacement therapies such as methadone or buprenorphine, they can lead productive lives — paying taxes rather than living on the public’s dime.
“When you put people in prison and given them a felony conviction, you make it very hard for them to succeed,” he said.
The bill passed both the House with support from all Democrats in attendance and two Republicans, Rep. John Huffman of The Dalles and Rep. Rich Vial of Wilsonville. It was not as well received in the Senate, but still passed. Having passed both legislative bodies, the bill will almost certainly become law.
Many opposed the bill – both Republican and Democrat – because to them it represents going easy on criminals. Republican Representative Andy Olsen wrote in a letter to his constituents: “I fully support the collection of data to monitor racial profiling, but I am opposed to reducing drug classification.” Democrat Senator Betsy Johnson went so far as to call it a “hug-a-thug policy.” The Washington Post reports:
“The proponents of these bills mistakenly believe that drug sentences damage people’s lives, but it’s the drugs that ruin people’s lives,” she 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.”
Oregon may or may not have a legitimate racial profiling issue, but the decriminalization of hard drugs isn’t likely to cure anyone’s racism. This bill doesn’t really decriminalize drugs anyway, though it does save some first-time offenders from receiving felonies for their addictions – granting them a second chance.
Senator Johnson may not believe that a felony charge can make a person’s life any more difficult than a drug addiction, but she is sadly mistaken. A drug user who becomes a felon can’t work many jobs and can be denied rental housing. Any former – or even current – drug users convicted of drug related felonies who wish to improve themselves through education will find that they are ineligible for any federal assistance, like PELL Grant or student loans. A drug addict can choose to quit – even if that requires seeking professional help. But in most cases, a felon is marked for life.