POLITICS

Oregon Could Become The First State To Decriminalize Drugs

A November ballot initiative would decriminalize drug possession and build a treatment program outside of the criminal justice system.

Nearly two people die every day from drug overdoses in Oregon. One out of 11 Oregonians suffer from addiction. The state also ranks last in the nation among states in access to drug treatment and recovery services for adults, according to a federal government survey on national drug use.

This fall, it might become the first state in the nation to decriminalize drug possession. Initiative 44, which will be on the ballot in November, would end the criminalization of simple drug possession of small amounts of all drugs by changing the penalties from felonies and misdemeanors to a $100 administrative fine. The initiative would also use excess tax money from the sale of legal marijuana to fund a new drug treatment, recovery and harm reduction program outside of the criminal justice system. The fine could be waived if the recipient chooses to undergo a voluntary treatment assessment under the new system. 

“What we’re trying to do is put drug use back where it belongs, which is under that public health scope and completely remove it from the criminal justice system,” said Matt Sutton, a spokesman for Drug Policy Action, a national harm reduction nonprofit backing Initiative 44.

The decriminalization of drugs in Oregon would mark a significant shift toward ending the nation’s half-century war on drugs, which is largely waged to the detriment of Black, Latino and other minority communities. One of the demands of the Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has been the restructuring of the relationship between the police and communities of color. The decriminalization of drugs and creation of a treatment system separate from the criminal justice system would be one step in that direction. 

The initiative’s success could lead other states to follow suit, as previous drug liberalization initiatives have done.

“Like we’ve seen with medical cannabis and cannabis legalization, the success in one state will attract policymakers in other states to follow suit,” said Anthony Johnson, the chief petitioner for Initiative 44.

The initiative was initially conceived under the shadow of a dramatic rise in drug overdose deaths related to the opioid and methamphetamine crises in the past 20 years. The national drug overdose death rate more than tripled from 1999 to 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — yet another example of the country’s failed policy of criminalizing drugs.

Initiative 44 is facing no substantive opposition and has been endorsed by groups ranging from NAACP Portland, local Black Lives Matter chapters, physicians groups and AFSCME, the government workers union whose membership includes corrections officers.

The proposal is based on the decriminalization and treatment policies adopted by Portugal in 2001. Portugal had seen a rapid increase in HIV infections due to intravenous drug use in the late 1990s. In response, it decided to decriminalize drug possession and set up a treatment and recovery system so that its citizens suffering from drug addiction could get the help they needed. The country has since seen a large reduction in HIV infections, particularly those related to intravenous drug use. 

But in the United States, the problems of drug criminalization and enforcement do not just have negative consequences for public health by failing to adequately provide treatment to addicts.

The war on drugs has for 50 years been one of the major drivers of racial disparities in police stops, searches, arrests, convictions and imprisonment in the nation’s criminal justice system. The criminalization of large swathes of minority communities, particularly Black men, through the racially discriminatory application of war on drugs enforcement has, in turn, created collateral consequences in access to housing, employment and family formation. This is despite the fact that drug use rates are similar across all races.

And these trends are just as true in Oregon, with its low Black population, as they are in the rest of the United States.

Bobby Byrd, a Black resident of Portland, Oregon, was arrested 26 years ago for possession of cocaine. He had suffered problems with cocaine addiction since he was a teenager. He was in the middle of a relapse when he went to a strip club in Northeast Portland known for drug sales after work one day and police arrested him.

For nearly 30 years, Byrd says he has been denied promotions and fired from jobs when he reported his felony conviction. When he sought training at a community college to become a drug and alcohol counselor or a phlebotomist, he was discouraged from pursuing those careers, and when he and his wife divorced he said he couldn’t find anyone who would rent to him — all because of his felony conviction.

“It really feels like ... my sentence started after I [served it],” Byrd said.

Byrd, who now works as an organizer in support of Initiative 44, is just one of the thousands of Black men and women who have been disproportionately affected by Oregon’s criminalization of drug possession. A 2018 study conducted by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission found that from 2012 to 2016, Black Oregonians were 2.5 times more likely to be convicted for drug possession as white Oregonians, despite both groups reporting similar rates of drug use.

Oregon has already taken steps to tackle these disparities by reducing criminal penalties for drug possession. The state legalized marijuana in 2014 and the legislature passed a bill in 2017 that was backed by law enforcement to reduce a number of drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Initiative 44 builds on this history by fully decriminalizing small drug possession crimes.

The initiative would nearly eliminate the racial disparities in drug possession arrests and convictions, according to a draft report released by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission in July. If the initiative were enacted, it would reduce drug possession convictions by over 90% for Black and Indigenous Oregonians.

For Byrd, passing the initiative is about making sure that no one in Oregon suffers as he did simply because of an arrest that stemmed from his inability to get treatment for his drug problem.

“It won’t change my past,” Byrd said. “I understand that and I’m OK with that. I don’t want this to happen to anyone in the future. I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through.”