The U.S. state of Oregon recently passed a law that lessens jail time and lowers fines for first-time drug offenders caught with small amounts of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs.
The new measure is hoping to put a dent in mass incarceration.
CGTN’s Phil Lavelle explains.
For years, being caught with a small amount of a substance like heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, methamphetamine or acid was treated as a light offense in Oregon. Those arrested would not go to prison. But they would be guilty of a felony. Being a felon would then stay with them – potentially affecting their employment prospects or housing chances in the future.
Now, under a new bill that’s just been passed, the felony part is being taken out. Those guilty of carrying small amounts of hard drugs who don’t have long criminal records, or aren’t engaged in other criminal activity, will be guilty of a misdemeanor instead. And it’s really dividing opinion.
John Teague is the President of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police.
“The reality of it is there are some people who are otherwise non criminals that stumble into drug abuse who, otherwise, might be contributing citizens..and if we can stop that early and not attach a felony conviction them, that makes it easier for them to go on and be better citizens,” he said.
He vehemently denies claims that this is decriminalization of hard drugs.
But that view isn’t shared by the other side. They’re adamant that this is decriminalization. Just ask Josh Marquis – the District Attorney in Clatsop County – who is furious about the change. He points out that Oregon has already been lenient on those caught with small amounts of controlled substances.
“The simple possession of drugs is at the absolute bottom of the lowest level of felonies. Even forging a lottery ticket is more serious than possessing, say, five grams of heroin,” Marquis said.
But, he points out that having that felony is leverage to get addicts into treatment. And now, it’s gone, “It’s not trying anything new. It’s not opening new treatment centers, it’s not a new treatment program, it’s not making available the two drugs that get addicts off addiction. There’s nothing in this bill to do anything. It’s basically just saying “well, we’re not going to deal with this anymore.”
The big question is whether that is a real lever in cases of addiction. Meredith disagrees – and she knows first hand. She got addicted to crystal meth when she was 18 and her life spiraled out of control: she lost her job, her children, her family and her home. Over the following years, she was in and out of jail.
“I lived in desperation. I lived in shame, degradation. I didn’t have a home. I didn’t have a relationship with my family. They say addiction is the only thing that’s stronger than motherhood and it led me to abandon my children which led to self hatred and shame which led to more using” she said.
Oregon, like many states, is fighting the likes of crystal meth and heroin hard. Whether this approach will work is something that will take time to gauge. But even if it does, it’s sure to divide society either way.