No, Oregon Isn’t Decriminalizing Drugs (Not Yet Anyway)

By Tom Angell | July 10, 2017

“Oregon Poised To Decriminalize Meth, Cocaine And Heroin.”

“Oregon House Approves Bills Decriminalizing Drug Possession.”

Those are some of the headlines that media outlets used to report news that Oregon lawmakers had approved a far-reaching drug policy and criminal justice reform bill last week.

The only problem is that the legislation in question does not decriminalize drugs.

Rather, it reduces the punishment for possession of certain quantities of some drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. This “defelonization” means that people caught with substances like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine will still be arrested, brought to court and considered criminals if convicted, but will be punished less harshly.

While the term “decriminalize” is somewhat vague, it is generally accepted to mean the removal of criminal penalties for the activity in question and the avoidance of arrest and incarceration for the same. Typically, when it is used to refer to the several states that have decriminalized marijuana, for example, it means that low-level possession is handled as an infraction and is punishable by something akin to a traffic ticket and a small fine.

A new report that the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) released on Monday defines decriminalization as, “the elimination of criminal penalties for drug use and possession, as well as the elimination of criminal penalties for the possession of equipment used for the purpose of introducing drugs into the human body, such as syringes.” [Emphasis added.]

But the Oregon legislation still puts people convicted of the newly classified misdemeanors at risk of being sentenced to “probation, up to one year’s imprisonment, a fine of up to $6,250 or a combination of these punishments,” according to a staff report.

But these technical details didn’t stop some media outlets from describing the Oregon bill in much more exciting terms.

The Lund Report, which focuses on Oregon health news, said that the bill reflects “a dramatic shift in the government’s attitudes toward drugs and addictions, decriminalizing possession of small amounts of six hard drugs.”

And the national conservative website Daily Caller said the bill “decriminalizes possession of the drugs so long as the offender has neither a felony nor more than two prior drug convictions on record.”

But even while the legislation in question doesn’t constitute decriminalization, it will still substantially reform the state’s criminal justice system beyond the drug defelonization aspect, if it is signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown (D). The bill also requires law enforcement agencies to begin collecting and reporting data on vehicle and pedestrian stops in an effort to reduce racial profiling.

Meanwhile, actual decriminalization efforts are picking up momentum around the globe.

Last week, the United Nations and World Health Organization released a statement calling for global drug decriminalization.

Last year, Hawaii lawmakers passed a resolution requesting that the state officially study decriminalization of certain drug offenses.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. Other countries like Mexico and the Czech Republic have also decriminalized certain drug offenses.

The new DPA report includes a list of major organizations that have recently called for decriminalization, including the American Public Health Association, the International Federation of Red Cross and
Red Crescent Societies, the NAACP, the Organization of American States and Human Rights Watch.

“Removing criminal penalties for drug use and possession will increase opportunities for people to get help,” DPA’s Emily Kaltenbach said in a press release. “Today, people who need drug treatment or medical assistance may avoid it in order to hide their drug use. If we decriminalize drugs, people can come out of the shadows and get the help they need.”

Tom Angell

Tom Angell is a senior political correspondent for MassRoots. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and is editor of the daily Marijuana Moment newsletter.

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