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Decriminalizing hard drugs a polarizing issue

Local law enforcement concerned decriminalization of hard drugs ineffective
By Jayati Ramakrishnan

Staff Writer

Published on October 24, 2017 4:52PM

Methamphetamines confiscated by the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team.

Photo contributed by Hermiston Police Department

Methamphetamines confiscated by the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team.

Crystal meth confiscated by the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team.

Photo contributed by Hermiston Police Department

Crystal meth confiscated by the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team.

Black tar heroin confiscated by the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team.

Photo contributed by the Hermiston Police Department

Black tar heroin confiscated by the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team.

A half-pound bag of crystal meth being weighed, confiscated by the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team.

Photo contributed by Hermiston Police Department

A half-pound bag of crystal meth being weighed, confiscated by the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team.


It is no longer a felony in Oregon to be in possession of small amounts of hard drugs — the first time around.

As per House Bill 2355, first-time offenders found with usable amounts of heroin, methamphetamines, cocaine and other hard drugs are charged with a misdemeanor instead of the felony charge that used to accompany possession.

The law went into effect Aug. 15, passing 36 to 23 in the House and 20 to 9 in the Senate.

According to state lawmakers who voted for the bill, the purpose was to stop filling up prisons with people who could instead receive treatment for drug use.

Several entities worked with legislators to craft the bill, including the Oregon Chiefs of Police Association and the Oregon Sheriff’s Association.

Local law enforcement officials said the impact of the new law is not yet clear, but its divisive nature is.

Morrow County District Attorney Justin Nelson said he had grave concerns about the change.

“I was absolutely against it,” he said. “I know the entire Oregon DA’s association was against it.”

He said his concerns stemmed from the lack of accurate information about hard drug use.

“One thing that always came up is sending users to prison,” he said. “That doesn’t happen. Possession of meth is always a probationary sentence. They don’t go to prison. Dealers go, and manufacturers, but not users.”

Nelson also said he was concerned that the reduction from felony to misdemeanor was misleading.

“I don’t think the seriousness or consequence to society has decreased in the past month or two,” he said.

Representative Greg Smith, who voted against the bill, said the legislation was meant to target a specific group.

“These were crimes primarily committed by female offenders, and this part of the legislation wanted to do everything it can to help female offenders with families or kids, and realized many of the offenses were the results of drug or alcohol abuse.”

But Smith said while those were good intentions, the legislation ignored some of the most direct victims of crimes committed by drug users.

“Victims have their identities stolen, or are victims of crimes people commit while on a substance,” he said. “I ended up voting no, not because I don’t have sympathy for the people who are victims of their own circumstances, but in my view, there has to be consequences with actions committed.”

Stuart Roberts, Pendleton police chief and chair of the BENT drug team, said this bill was a response to the passage of House Bill 3194 in 2013, which aimed to lower the number of inmates going into the Oregon prison system. Specifically, he said, that bill was designed to lower the number of women going to prison, so the state did not have to build a second women’s prison.

House Bill 2355 also contained language about reducing racial profiling, requiring police departments to collect data about a person during officer-initiated pedestrian or traffic stops including race, gender, ethnicity, and the nature of the stop. The law is intended to help officers see if they are tracking a disproportionate number of minority individuals.

Local officials said the attempt to track and prevent racial profiling may be an issue for other communities, but weren’t able to rationalize the issue in the same bill as decriminalization of hard drugs.

“Each community has their own demographics,” said Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston. “But how decriminalizing got mixed into it is beyond me.”

Nelson, too, said the issue of racial profiling by police may be more prominent on the west side of the state. He said while minorities may be more affected on average by drug offenses, it’s not something he’s found in Morrow County.

Nelson also worried that the reduced criminality would be accompanied by a drop in motivation for users to follow treatment plans. First-time offenders caught in possession of a hard drug, Nelson said, are offered conditional discharge, where they plead and are placed on formal probation. If they complete probation and treatment, the charge is dismissed from their record. Nelson said the promise of having a felony charge wiped from their record gave offenders an incentive to continue with treatment.

“The stigma of a felony charge is gone,” he said. “In my experience, there is not the same stigma with a misdemeanor, and not the same incentive to comply with treatment.”

Nelson said the new rules haven’t come up too often in his work yet, but the term “usable amount” is not always clear, making it more work for an officer to determine what the charge should be.

For methamphetamines, heroin and cocaine, a “usable amount” is defined as two grams or less.

Treatment, not decriminalization

Smith and Nelson both said the solution to the problem lay in treatment, rather than a reduction in criminalization.

“I don’t believe we got any more funding for treatment,” Nelson said. “We don’t have a drug court, and Umatilla County doesn’t have theirs anymore. Treatment is still going to be an issue.”

Smith said removing the consequence at the back end of the process was not the answer.

“We need to eliminate it on the front end, add mental health counseling,” he said. “I think the legislature is failing us there.”

Roberts said the new law adds several more tasks for officers, which can be a challenge.

“Specifically the ‘user amount,’” he said. “There’s also language specific to residue. Before, it didn’t matter — one ounce, 10 ounces. Now, it’s layered. They have to weigh to decide whether to arrest, or to cite or not.”

Unless, he said, the person has a prior drug-related offense — and to find out that information, an officer has to request the person’s comprehensive criminal history.

“It’s one more step in the process,” he said.

He added that they don’t want field officers handling substances more than necessary, because they could be laced with fentanyl, a narcotic that can be harmful to anyone who handles it.

Roberts said while the law is designed to reduce the stigma that was causing felons problems with finding housing or jobs, it doesn’t address the root of the problem.

“There have to be opportunities for finding housing or treatment,” he said, adding that those things are tough to come by in rural areas.

Edmiston said while the law wouldn’t alter his department’s day-to-day operations much, the change would lead to an increased strain on all parts of the system, from the fire officials and medics that have to respond to drug-related calls, to the officers that have to do more legwork when they arrest someone in possession of drugs.

He added that the new law wouldn’t automatically lead to positive improvement.

“We’re only going to be as good as the individual agencies hold themselves accountable.”

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Contact Jayati Ramakrishnan at 541-564-4534 or jramakrishnan@eastoregonian.com.







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