Although a number of reports have surfaced this week suggesting that Oregon is about to “decriminalize” the possession of drugs such as meth, cocaine and heroin, it appears the overall message behind these journalistic offerings has been misconstrued.
What is true is that the Oregon legislature recently passed a bill that aims to reduce the penalties associated with the small time possession of illegal substances. However, nothing in the language of the proposal (House Bill 2355) would give law enforcement the freedom to simply handle drug possession cases with in a manner consistent with decriminalization.
In fact, under the bill, not much would change for people caught holding drugs—they would still be arrested and entered into the criminal justice system the same as they always have been. The only benefit is that once their case goes before a judge, they could be given a less severe punishment than in times past.
Although there are a few different definitions of “decriminalization,” the most commonly used, the one tested in a growing number of states with respect to the possession of marijuana, eliminates the possibility of an “offender” being slapped with a felony or a criminal misdemeanor.
Instead of being dragged down to the local jail, minor pot offenders in areas with decriminalization laws are simply issued a citation for the offense, which varies in cost depending on the jurisdiction. But the criminal justice reform being attempted in Oregon does not let drug offenders off that easily.
There is still a possibility that some of these unfortunate souls could be sentenced to prison and be on the hook for thousands of dollars in fines.
Yet, optimistically speaking, Oregon’s reduced penalty plan is a step in the right direction.
The United States has been locking up drug offenders for decades without making any actual progress in respect to putting a leash on the national problem. Despite the warnings coming from health and policy experts, the forces that drive Uncle Sam still feel compelled to try and incarcerate their way out of the throes of addiction, overdose deaths and other perilous effects of being one of the leading feel-good nations on the planet.
Meanwhile, other countries have approached the situation with more common sense.
In Portugal, for example, there are no criminal penalties associated with the possession of illegal drugs.
The government decided back in 2001 to impose a “decriminalization” policy that gives drug offenders more access to treatment programs without the possibility of jail. Since then, the nation has experienced one of the lowest overdose rates in all of Europe, AIDS cases are on the decline and very few people are rotting away in jail over drugs.
Some influential organizations hope to inspire decriminalization policies on a global scale.
Just last week, the United Nations and the World Health Organization issued a joint statement calling for the decriminalization of all drugs worldwide. The two organizations wrote that it was essential for nations to review and repeal policies “that have been proven to have negative health outcomes,” including laws against “drug use or possession of drugs for personal use.”
During a press conference, UN Secretary General António Guterres, who was prime minister of Portugal when the nation decriminalized drugs nearly two decades ago, said the world should be attacking the drug problem through “prevention and treatment,” not by making criminals out of harmless people.
“Millions of people across the world use drugs without posing any harm to others,” he said. “Criminalizing them is unnecessary, it’s harmful, it’s not proportional, and, to us, it undermines the right to privacy and the right to human dignity and personal autonomy.”
Earlier this week, the folks at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) issued a new report calling for the decriminalization of all drugs in the United States. The group says the concept of decriminalization is “a sound, effective solution to some of the myriad fiscal, public health, social and public safety issues caused by the criminalization of drug possession.”
The report found that there are hundreds of thousands of people either sitting behind bars or under some kind of legal supervision for simply being in possession of an illegal substance.
The DPA believes it is time for the federal government to make sound advancements in its approach to handling the drug issue. Otherwise, the consequences of criminalization stand to give way to an even more downtrodden society.
“Drug decriminalization is a critical next step toward achieving a rational drug policy that puts science and public health before punishment and incarceration,” the DPA wrote. “Decades of evidence has clearly demonstrated that decriminalization is a sensible path forward that would reap vast human and fiscal benefits, while protecting families and communities.”