Oregon House Approves Bills Decriminalizing Drug Possession

Sen. Jackie Winters silenced her colleagues with a speech saying that the War on Drugs amounts to institutional racism.

The Oregon House of Representatives approved two bills on Tuesday that mark a dramatic shift in the government’s attitudes toward drugs and addictions, decriminalizing possession of small amounts of six hard drugs and lowering the penalty in some cases from a felony to a misdemeanor.

The bills then went to the Senate, where they have been championed by Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, the longest-serving African-American woman in Oregon Senate history.

House Bill 2355 decriminalizes cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and ecstasy, so long as an offender does not have any prior felonies or more than two prior drug convictions. House Bill 3078 reduces the sentences of certain property crimes, which are often associated with drug use.

Although the state has been a leader on decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, who sponsored HB 2355, said that 18 other states have already decriminalized harder drugs. The House approved HB 2355 on a 36-23 vote while the Senate approved it 20-9. The House approved HB 3078 on 33-26 vote, while the Senate approved this one 18-11.

The so-called “War on Drugs” has long disproportionately penalized nonwhite Americans in general, and black and American Indian families in particular. A felony on the record can mean never finding work or having stable housing, and racial minorities are several times more likely to be convicted for drug crimes, even though they are not more likely to use drugs than white people.

Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, said that Native Americans are five times as likely to be arrested for drug possession as the state average; African-Americans are twice as likely.

In the Committee on Ways & Means, Winters pushed back on “Tough on Crime” rhetoric from Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who opposes decriminalization, and who said if the felony cudgel was taken away, people would no longer comply with treatment and the state’s drug courts would suffer.

“There is empirical evidence that there are certain things that follow race. … We don’t like to look at the disparity in our prison system,” Winters said. “It is institutional racism. … We can pretend it doesn’t exist, but it does.”

The sentencing reform bills add to a multi-year effort for Winters, who started as early as 2011 to reduce the growth in the prison population. She was especially determined to prevent the construction of a second women’s prison, which would not only drive up the costs of the Department of Corrections, but impose burdens on the foster care system and fuel an intergenerational cycle for children with moms in prison, that reduces their chances of success at life and increases their chances of engaging in delinquent behavior and drug abuse.

“We often look at things in a silo,” Winters told The Lund Report. “I try to look at the connections.”

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, said criminalizing drug addiction has been a public policy failure that has created a tremendous burden on the state while delegating people to a hardscrabble life where they bounce in and out of the criminal justice system as their social determinants of health become upended.

“We’ve got to treat people, not put them in prison,” Greenlick said. “It would be like putting them in the state penitentiary for having diabetes. … This is a chronic brain disorder and it needs to be treated this way.”

Greenlick said that brain scans of people addicted to methamphetamine and heroin show the physical structure of their brains have been altered, and do not resemble scans from a person who is not addicted or someone who has never consumed these drugs. And while their brains may never come back to normal, with replacement therapies such as methadone or buprenorphine, they can lead productive lives -- paying taxes rather than living on the public’s dime.

“When you put people in prison and given them a felony conviction, you make it very hard for them to succeed,” he said.

HB 2355 was supported by all the Democrats in attendance, plus two Republicans -- Rep. John Huffman of The Dalles and Rep. Rich Vial of Wilsonville. Sen. Johnson opposed both bills, while Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland, joined Winters in supporting both.

Rep. Jodi Hack, R-Salem, who represents half of Winters’ district, said she’d received threats for backing Winters on the other bill, House Bill 3078, which Huffman also supported. Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, also supported this measure, while Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, opposed.

“We are putting addicts and nonviolent offenders into prison,” Hack said. “We in the U.S. are 5 percent of the world’s population, but 20 percent of the prison population.”

HB 3078 reduces some mandatory minimum sentences for property crimes and increases the number of prior convictions necessary for a lengthy prison sentence. Hack addressed her support for the bill, saying it could prevent  the construction of a second women’s prison in the state and offer a chance to steer offenders toward a diversion program that will help avoid breaking up families. She said 75 percent of the women at Coffee Creek Correctional Center have children.

“I have been intimidated. I have been bullied. I have been threatened about the vote I’m about I’m about to take. I have been told I will be primaried,” Hack said. “I will not be bullied. I will not be intimidated. My vote is not for sale. I am not for sale.”

The bill tasks the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission with monitoring diversion programs and providing local jurisdictions with $7 million for these programs. It adds pregnant women to the Family Sentencing Alternative Pilot Program.

The money for diversion was critical to reducing opposition from law enforcement and district attorneys, which derailed the efforts that Winters and former Gov. John Kitzhaber made to reform prison sentencing.

“We can get at really targeting resource to the root causes of the problem,” Winters said.

Three Democrats opposed HB 3078 -- Rep. Brad Witt of Clatskanie, Rep. Jeff Barker of Aloha and Rep. Brian Clem of Salem.

Reach Chris Gray at chris@thelundreport.org.

Correction: The original article mixed up some of the bill numbers. They have been corrected. Also, HB 3078 reduces the sentences for theft but not these charges remain felonies.

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