Oregon lawmakers are taking a radical approach to the war on drugs. Last week, they passed a bill that will lessen punishments for possessing drugs like methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine.
First-time offenders caught with small amounts of heroin, cocaine, meth and other hard drugs will face less jail time and smaller fines, which lawmakers hope will help to curb mass incarceration and reform drug policies that disproportionately impact people of color, the Washington Post reported this week.
Rather than charge offenders with a felony, the move would reclassify possession of small amounts of the drugs as a misdemeanor.
In an email to Mic, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown called it “an important step towards creating a more equitable justice system to better serve all Oregonians.”
It’s well known that whites and blacks use drugs at about the same rates, but a 2015 study by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission found that African-Americans were convicted on felony drug possession charges at more than twice the rate as whites, the Associated Press reported at the time.
“Felony sentences for small, user quantity amounts often carry heavy consequences including barriers to housing and employment which have a disparate impact on minority communities,” Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek said, according to the Statesman Journal.
Fear of jail time and fines actually deter drug users from seeking help.
“Defelonizing possession could make it easier for people who would otherwise be too scared of punishment to get help seek needed medical attention, and could financially help the state build resources for addicts like harm reduction programs, syringe access programs, and access to health services,” Jag Davies, director of communications strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Refinery29.
Oregon isn’t the first place to try this radical stance on drug policy — Portugal decriminalized possession totally in 2001. Drug use has not increased and addiction has gone down.
“It’s been an amazing success,” Davies said.
To become law, the bill still needs to pass in the state Senate and be signed by Gov. Brown, which a spokeswoman for her office told Mic she is looking forward to.