No, Oregon Isn't Decriminalizing Heroin & Cocaine — But It Should

Photographed by Rachel Cabitt.
A headline from the Washington Post is making waves this week, one that claims that a new Oregon bill would decriminalize possession of small amounts of heroin and cocaine if it passes. Since the story ran on Tuesday, other media outlets have picked up the word "decriminalize" and have been using it in their headlines, as well.
But Jag Davies, director of communications strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance, tells us that's not entirely accurate. Legislators in Oregon did approve a bill that would defelonize possession of drugs like heroin and cocaine in the state, but not decriminalize it. Decriminalization means that carrying small amounts of drugs would not lead to arrest or jail time, while defelonization means that carrying these drugs wouldn't result in a felony charge, but could still be grounds for arrest.
The bill will likely pass and become law, as Mic reports. It has already passed in the house and the senate and is now being sent to the desk of Oregon's Governor Kate Brown, who is "looking forward to signing the bill." If it passes, though, it wouldn't eliminate arrests for possession of heroin, cocaine, and other drugs. The new law would instead turn drug felonies into misdemeanors, for which those accused could still spend time in prison.
Still, Davies says this is a "good step forward," and could positively impact public health and racial disparities in the state.
"There's a lot of stigma with criminalization of drug use," Davies says. "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."
Though most people don't often think about prisons in the financial sense (or at all), it costs a lot of money to arrest someone and keep them incarcerated. About a million people are arrested for drug use in the U.S. every year, Davies says, when advocates for reform say they should actually be treated with health services rather than being locked up in a prison system that statistics show would likely make their struggle with addiction even harder once they're released.
And, of course, that affects people of color much more often than it does white people. Black people and white people use drugs at similar rates, Davies says, yet Black people account for about 29% of drug use arrests and 35% of drug-use-related incarcerations. There are also more than 100,000 people deported because of drug possession each year, he says.
This disparity is a big part of the reason Oregon introduced the defelonization bill, according to Mic. A study from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission in 2015 found that Black people in the state were convicted of felony drug possession more than twice as often as white people.
“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.
Governor Brown and other proponents of the bill hopes that defelonization will begin to change some of these consequences for POC in the state.
While he is happy to see more states taking action like this, Davies believes that total decriminalization is the best move. "Portugal decriminalized possession totally in 2001 and it's been an amazing success," he says. Addiction and drug use has gone way down since then, and drug use overall has not increased.
"People think of decriminalization as a 'pie in the sky' kind of idea," he says. "But the majority of the public already support it and medical and public health groups like the World Health Organization support treating addiction with health-based programs rather than incarceration."
Should the bill pass, Oregon will join several other states that have already defelonized or decriminalized drug possession, including Maryland, California, Alaska, Maine, and Oklahoma.
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