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Oregon Governor Kate Brown (D) wants to reclassify drug possession and has now been given the chance. H.B. 2355 passed both the House and Senate last week and it reduces possession of illegal drugs from felonies to misdemeanors, which means smaller fines and shorter jail time, as long as the person in possession is a first-time offender and caught with small amounts. These drugs include heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and LSD, along with other illegal drugs.
Many people will wonder what the benefits of reclassifying these drugs could be. The goal of this bill is to encourage drug users to to seek help rather than filling up the prison system with people without prior felonies or drug possession. Sen. Jackie Winters (R), co-chair of the Public Safety Committee, stated, “We are trying to move policy towards treatment rather than prison beds. We can’t continue on the path of building more prisons when often the underlying root cause of the crime is substance use.”
So will the decriminalization solve the “war on drugs”?
Most likely not but this is a good step in the right direction. Numerous law enforcement agencies came together with lawmakers to help form H.B. 2355. The bill aims to provide aid for states struggling to manage the opioid addiction crisis by working to treat drug abuse more as a public health concern rather than a criminal matter. Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D), told the Lund Report, a Portland-based health outlet, “We’ve got to treat people, not put them in prison. 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 went on to say “When you put people in prison and given them a felony conviction, you make it very hard for them to succeed.” This bill wants to help people succeed and move forward. Kevin Campbell, executive director of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police, wrote a letter in support of the bill. He stated, “Unfortunately, felony convictions in these cases also include unintended and collateral consequences including barriers to housing and employment and a disparate impact on minority communities.”
The bill also addresses the racial disparities in incarceration. In 2015, Oregon passed a law addressing racial profiling but it did not provide guidance on how to deal with these issues. Although Oregon was the 31st state to pass a bill addressing these issues, it became very clear that it was incomplete. H.B. 2355 will collect and analyze data to help the police departments understand when their policies or procedures result in disparities. Hopefully this bill will create a more equitable justice system for all Oregonians.
Although the bill had pushback from majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate, many of them supported the efforts to end racial profiling. State Rep. Andy Olson (R) recently wrote, “I fully support the collection of data to monitor racial profiling, but I am opposed to reducing drug classification.” Many of these opponents believe that downgrading drug possession is misguided and the drugs are what ruin people’s lives not the prison sentences.
Hopefully this bill will allow Oregonians to receive the help they need with their drug abuse and end racial profiling by working together. Gov. Brown said she is looking forward to signing the bill into law.