A bill signed by Oregon Governor Kate Brown last week makes the Beaver State the latest to reduce the penalty for personal-use possession of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. The state which famously was the first to decriminalize cannabis in 1973 is again leading the way to a more rational and humane drug policy.
Hearteningly, among the bill’s supporters were the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police and the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association. The Associated Press reports the two organizations said felony convictions involve unintended consequences, such as barriers to housing and employment. But in an open letter on the matter, they also said the new law “will only produce positive results if additional drug treatment resources accompany this change in policy.”
The law does have some limits that have disappointed advocates of a more wide-reaching reform. It does not apply to those who have a prior felony conviction or those with two or more prior drug convictions. It also does not apply to those found in possession of above what are considered “personal-use” quantities.
Happily, the new law calls for a state commission to keep tabs on data concerning police traffic and pedestrian stops—a measure aimed at ensuring cops aren’t stopping people based on racial or other profiling.
The “defelonization” law is being widely reported as a first in the country, although a similar measure was approved by popular referendum in California’s 2014 Proposition 47. In a critical analysis of the new Oregon law, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) notes that the experience of California since 2014 “reveals and reinforces the reality that collateral consequences of a misdemeanor can often have the same impact as a felony charge.” These can include, as with felonies, access to housing and employment.
The DPA’s Art Way rejects the argument that some kind of “criminal hook” is needed (even if only a misdemeanor) to pressure users into treatment.
“We need only to look back at recent decades to show the fallacy of trying to arrest, jail and hamper drug users with collateral consequences as a mode to address drug dependency,” he wrote. “We need to establish a system where collateral consequences do not hamper those who are truly dependent… A system where arrests, adjudications and convictions are not the primary tools for a user to enter into treatment.”
He added that, given prevailing assumptions, “what’s more difficult is addressing the reality that many drug possessors do not need treatment at all.”