Meth a misdemeanor: Legislative concept LC 420, JS, 43”

A preliminary bill — currently at the legislative concept level and planned be introduced in the state legislative session in February — could downgrade the conviction of possession of methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Proponents include some criminal defense lawyers, advocates for minorities, the ACLU of Oregon, the Oregon Justice Resource Center, the Oregon Department of Justice — even the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association and Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police, who first had the idea.

And it comes in the midst of a lingering methamphetamine and burgeoning heroin epidemic in the nation.

The two law enforcement associations say they’d like a more “uniform, thoughtful approach,” particularly as studies show minorities are often over-represented in the numbers arrested for the crime.

Busted!

Currently, a person convicted on a first-time possession charge is usually sentenced to 18 months probation, 10 days in jail and ordered to pay a fine, said District Attorney Everett Dial. They often are offered “diversion,” meaning that if they participate in drug counseling and stay out of trouble, there is no time served and the charge will be dismissed.

Repeat offenders might get more time in jail — here, it often depends whether there’s even a jail bed available — and a higher fine.

Downgrading the offense changes all that.

First-time offenders found with a “personal amount” on them would be offered drug treatment services in lieu of probation, jail time and fines. If they stay out of trouble for three years, the charge would be expunged — completely removed — from their record. That’s more lenient than misdemeanor DUII convictions, an infraction that follows someone for life.

Former Curry County Sheriff and state sheriff’s association Executive Director John Bishop noted that, if the proposal — Legislative Concept 420 — becomes law, it would only affect a small number of people.

It would not affect anyone who was simultaneously committing another crime — even speeding — and is subsequently found to have methamphetamine or heroin in their possession. It also will not apply to those who have been busted before, Bishop said.

“You do not qualify (for the misdemeanor) if you’re caught driving badly and found to have methamphetamine on you,” Bishop said. “Even (if a person has) a lot of drugs, like they’re going to deliver or manufacture them, they wouldn’t qualify (if involved in another crime). The number of people this is going to affect is minimal.”

Dial is opposed to the proposal.

“These people would keep their gun rights, generally, would no longer have supervised supervision — it really means there’s no supervision at all,” he said. “That’s a pretty significant change. No one here is in favor of it.”

He noted that other factors aren’t considered. Drug treatment facilities, while their intents are admirable, typically have abysmal success rates, often dipping into the single-digit percentages.

Although those who crafted LC 420 have included a requirement in the bill that the drug treatment costs would be funded by the state, there are state mandates that go unfunded every year, putting the burden on counties and municipalities.

The crimes people commit when high on these drugs — the collateral damage, Dial called it — isn’t addressed in the bill, he said. And what if, like the legalization of marijuana, users come to Oregon because they know the punishment for possession is minimal?

“We want to get them help so we can start stopping the cycle,” Bishop said. “We want to get some of the first-timers out of our jails because they’re so crowded — and get them some help so they don’t go down the path of drug addiction.”

“I think what the motivation is, is that it would cost less to the state, but the burden will go to the counties,” Dial said. “The (state) pays for jail bed days for felonies, but not misdemeanors.”

All in favor?

Many proponents note the Reagan-era “War on Drugs” focused too much on locking people up rather than treating their addictions.

“In Oregon, as across the nation, drug sentencing laws, which often impose felony sentences for the possession of even a small amount of drugs, have fallen hardest on our diverse communities,” said Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum in a press release. “This outdated approach often deprives those struggling with drug addiction of the housing, jobs and other opportunities necessary to overcome their addiction without providing the treatment that they desperately need.”

Kayse Jama, executive director of social justice organization Unite Oregon, also supports the idea.

“The ‘war on drugs’ was a failure,” Jama said. “Drug policies have devastated our community and contributed to the mass incarceration of people of color and low-income communities. In addition, drug policies work against people who are struggling with addiction. Existing policies make it almost impossible for people to find safe and secure housing, meaningful employment and recovery-related care.”

Instead, proponents want to treat the problem at its source — as a public health, not social issue.

Money the state normally spends for prosecutions and jail time for those convicted of felonies is proposed to pay for that treatment.

Drug programs

Other ideas are being tried throughout the Pacific Northwest.

This fall, a Seattle-area task force proposed opening “safe injection sites” where addicts could use heroin while being supervised.

Also in Seattle, those caught with drugs are arrested, but each case is treated considering the individual’s circumstances. If they agree to participate in drug treatment and social services, the charge might not be pursued at all.

Multnomah County plans to start a similar program, based on Seattle’s success, next month.

The ACLU of Oregon feels LC 420 “is an incredible step in the right direction,” as it will address the array of ways drug convictions are handled.

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