A bill that would reduce drug felonies to misdemeanors for first-time possessions of small amounts of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other hard drugs passed through the Oregon state legislature on Thursday and is likely to be signed into law by Governor Kate Brown.
House Bill 2355 which reduces convictions for first-time possessions of such illicit drugs passed through the state’s house of representatives by 36-23 on July 4. The state senate voted in favor of it by 20-9.
The bill’s proponents argued that it was the most effective way of addressing growing drug abuse in the state.
Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D.) told the Washington Free Beacon, “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.”
State Senator Betsy Johnson (D) denounced the bill as a “hug a thug policy,” claiming to the Washington Post: “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.”
Last year, Oregon had the second-highest rate of opioid abuse in the country. The epidemic has led to drug overdoses being the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.
Members of the law enforcement community also saw the legislation as a sensible approach.
Executive Director of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police Kevin Campbell wrote the following in a letter: “Too often, individuals with addiction issues find their way to the doorstep of the criminal justice system when they are arrested for possession of a controlled substance,” Kevin Campbell. 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 seeks to combat racial profiling in law enforcement. It requires officers to report on the race, age, ethnicity and sex of those they contact in a pedestrian or traffic stop.
The opioid epidemic has drawn significant attention at the national level as well. In March, President Trump met with victims of opioid addiction, calling it a total epidemic. He appointed a presidential commission to examine causes and possible solutions to the growing plight.