Oregon makes drug possession a misdemeanor over prosecutor objections
The state of Oregon has made drug possession a misdemeanor over the objections of multiple district attorneys in the state.
The new law went into effect as soon as Governor Kate Brown signed it earlier this month. It makes most instances of first-time simple possession of illegal drugs — including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines — a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
The change in classification from misdemeanor to felony will have a dramatic impact on the maximum prison sentence that someone could face if convicted. Under the new law, the maximum term of incarceration is one year. When classified as a felony, the maximum sentences often ranged from five to ten years.
The law was passed in the hope of shifting focus from criminalizing drugs to helping drug addicts get treatment — and ultimately keeping more people out of prison.
“We are trying to move policy toward treatment rather than prison beds,” said state Sen. Jackie Winters, who supported the bill. “We can’t continue on the path of building more prisons when often the underlying root cause of the crime is substance use.”
Some law enforcement groups backed the legislation. According to the Associated Press, “Among the law’s supporters were the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police and the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association, which said felony convictions include unintended consequences, including barriers to housing and employment.”
But the law enforcement organizations warned that the new law would only work if additional drug treatment resources were made available.
Prosecutors will still be able to charge drug possession as a felony if the person arrested has a prior felony conviction or two or more drug convictions. Prosecutors can also seek felony charges if the amount of drugs in question exceeds the law’s definition of “personal use” amount. For example, more than two grams of cocaine or methamphetamine, more than one gram of heroin, and more than 40 pills of oxycodone would not qualify as “personal use” amount.
While law enforcement voiced support, state prosecutors came out strongly against the law.
Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, who spoke out against the law when legislators were considering it, complained that drugs possession was now being treated like shoplifting.
Marquis argued that prosecutors before could use the threat of a felony as leverage to force defendants to seek treatment. With the reclassification, Marquis says, that leverage is now gone.
“We know that people don’t seek treatment until they either bottom out or they have no choice,” Marquis said. “By making it a felony, it does threaten people with some consequences.”
Linn County District Attorney Doug Marteeny also opposed the law, saying that possession of dangerous drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine was too serious a crime to be treated as a misdemeanor.
“To change the classification of this behavior from a felony to a misdemeanor is tantamount to telling our schoolchildren that tomorrow it will be less dangerous to use methamphetamine than it is today,” Marteeny wrote.
But the numbers don’t appear to support the theory — or Oregon’s previous practice — of locking up this group of offenders. Moreover, the prosecution of felony drug possession in Oregon skewed heavily toward over-prosecuting and over-punishing people of color.
A study by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission found that blacks were convicted of felony drug possession at double the rate that whites were in 2015. The study also revealed that Native Americans five times as likely as whites to be convicted of felony drug possession.
A 2016 report from the Sentencing Project found that Oregon has the seventh-highest incarceration rate in the country for black males. Although blacks make up approximately two percent of the state’s population, they constitute 10 percent of the people who are locked up.
It remains to be seen whether, as state law enforcement has openly questioned, Oregon will provide the resources necessary to effectively move away from an incarceration-focused approach to a treatment-focused approach. And, further, whether the racial disparities that have marked Oregon’s treatment of drug offenses will persist.