PORTLAND, Ore. — As of today, and from here on out, no one caught on Oregon streets possessing small amounts of hard drugs will go to jail.
That’s because after years of watching the opioid epidemic rip through the region, in November voters stepped in and overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure making Oregon the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of most hard drugs. Today that law is now in effect, switching what used to be a misdemeanor charge to a mere violation.
It’s a “historic day for Oregon and for the fight to end the war on drugs and all of its racist and classist consequences,” Anthony Johnson, chief petitioner of the measure, tells the The News Station.
The measure reallocates excess marijuana tax dollars over $45 million towards establishing recovery centers and grant funds for more robust treatment options. Those found to be in possession will be sent to the recovery centers if they want to waive the fee for possession, where they’ll undergo a health assessment and get connected to treatment and recovery resources.
The newly minted fine for possession is $100, which is a stark departure from an offense that historically has saddled offenders with chronic barriers to ever becoming normal parts of society again, including being jailed for long periods, excluded from many job sectors, barred from most federal — and many local and state — housing programs and denied educational opportunities.
Moving forward, Johnson says he and other advocates will be closely monitoring the roll out of the measure to make sure it’s done with integrity and maintains its intent, to combat the stigma surrounding people who struggle with substance abuse and also to sharply decrease racial discrepancies in policing.
“People from black and indigenous communities have been over-policed. We’ll need to make sure the measure, as it’s carried out, will end that over-policing,” Johnson says, who adds that the work is just beginning.
The measure faced intense opposition from a group of recovery advocates who claimed removing the court system from the process would take away the only route some addicts have to entering recovery programs. But proponents won the day by arguing that was a harmful framework to apply to the issue, especially considering law enforcement officials and the judicial system’s entrenched systemic discrepancies in arrests, charges and convictions — which continue to be applied unfairly for whites in comparison to the much steeper punishments doled out to Black and Brown people.
Now, Oregon law enforcement is tasked with implementing a seismic shift in its policing habits — turning what were once serious convictions into mere slaps on the wrist. Supporters of the change say it’s long overdue and will revolutionize how the nation, not just Oregon, treats addiction. The experiment puts recovery and treatment over punishment; a novel idea for America, but something other nations, like Portugal, and cities, like Toronto and even Philadelphia (though officials there continue to fight for a safe injection site in court), have led the way on.
Matt Sutton, who works for the Drug Policy Alliance, says Oregon’s passage of this measure shows a wider shift in public perception about addiction — moving it predominantly from a criminal to a public health issue. Sutton himself was arrested for possession when he was 18 years old.
“That dramatically altered the trajectory of my life. I wasn’t offered the kind of support services I needed to get my life on track,” Sutton tells The News Station. “Election night was an emotional night for me. It was like, ‘Wow, here I am, this kid that got arrested at 18, and 15 years later I’m part of a team that’s undoing those harmful laws and giving people a chance.’”