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Bill in Oregon Legislature would reclassify some felony drug crimes as misdemeanors

In this Feb. 16, 2017, photo, a discarded syringe sits in the dirt with other debris under a highway overpass where drug users are known to congregate in Everett, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

A bill being considered in the Oregon Legislature would change the way small-scale drug crimes are treated in Oregon.

HB 2355 is aimed at reducing unjust profiling in Oregon. However, the part of the bill that deals with drug crime classification has drawn most of the controversy.

"This bill runs up the white flag," said Joshua Marquis, district attorney for Clatsop County. "It surrenders to heroin and meth addiction. The message we're sending, not only to criminals but the community, by de-felonizing these drugs is, 'it's just that big of a deal.'"

Marquis says a felony drug crime, simply by the nature of its severity, acts as a deterrent to future drug use.

"We're talking about providing the incentives, frankly the coercive tools to force people who are in addiction into treatment," said Marquis.

The ACLU of Oregon fired back at that assumption.

"The idea that there isn’t still some penalty associated with not going through your treatment and not actually doing the things you’re supposed to do when you get this misdemeanor, that’s just absolutely false," said Kimberly McCollough, policy director for the ACLU of Oregon. "The war on drugs has failed. We need to start treating drug use and addiction as a public health issue."

The debate over drug crime classification has overshadowed the main goal of the bill -- reducing profiling in Oregon. The bill would require law enforcement agencies collect data on the age, race, ethnicity, and sex of a person contacted during a traffic or pedestrian stop. That data would then be reviewed by 2020 and it would be used to develop strategies for reducing profiling. Drug crime classification became part of the bill during task force discussions.

"The drug war is inextricably tied up in and intertwined with the issue of profiling," said McCollough. "In order to find out who's using drugs or who possesses drugs there's a real incentive to try to search folks. What we found is that profiling is often amplified, that disparities are often amplified in those discretionary decisions to search someone."

The bill is still in committee but proponents are optimistic about its eventual passage.


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