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Oregon to Reduce Penalties for Meth, Heroin, MDMA Possession

Penalties for the possession of drugs in the US state of Oregon are set to be significantly reduced, as legislators in the state approved two bills focused on criminal justice reform.

On Thursday July 6, Oregon’s Senate passed House Bill 2355 (HB-2355) and House Bill 3078 (HB-3078), which had both already been approved by the state’s House of Representatives one day earlier.

Among its stipulations, HB-2355 reduces the crime classification of unlawful possession of controlled substances in the Schedule I and Schedule II categories to a maximum sentence of one year’s imprisonment, a $6,250 fine, or both. Selling drugs, and possessing drugs with the intent to sell, continue to be felonies.

Until now, possession of Schedule I drugs – such as MDMA and heroin, and Schedule II drugs – such as methamphetamine and cocaine, have been classed as felonies. These offences were punishable by up to 10 or five years in prison, respectively. HB-2355 redefines these offences as misdemeanours.

HB-2355 will also establish “an educational program [to reduce] profiling … by police officers and reserve officers”. The legislation defines profiling as “the targeting of an individual by a law enforcement agency or a law enforcement officer, on suspicion of the individual’s having violated a provision of law, based solely on the individual’s real or perceived age, race, ethnicity, color, national origin, language, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, political affiliation, religion, homelessness or disability, unless the agency or officer is acting on a suspect description or information related to an identified or suspected violation of a provision of law.”

Kimberly McCullough, Legislative Director of the Oregon branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), lauded HB-2355 for helping “move Oregon toward treating drugs as a public health issue and [reducing] the harsh collateral consequences of drug possession convictions”. McCullough specifically welcomed the legislation's reference to profiling, noting that the practice is "based on false assumptions, implicit bias, and broadly-accepted stereotypes".

HB-3078, also known as the Safety and Savings Act, does not specifically reform drug legislation, but it reduces penalties for offences related to problematic drug use, namely low-level acquisitive property crime. Primarily, the law “reduces presumptive sentences and eliminates mandatory sentences for certain property crimes when [the] defendant has prior property crime convictions”. It also “increases [the] number of prior property crime convictions required for presumptive sentence to apply [and] eliminates certain crimes that can be used as prior convictions”.

The ACLU has also supported HB-3078, with Kimberly McCullough describing it as "smart justice" and a "harm reduction solution". "Excessive sentencing [for] drug and property offenses”, she says, “exacerbates racial disparities in our justice system, increases our prison population, costs tax payers, and harms our families and communities".

Senator Jackie Winters, a key supporter of both bills, and the longest-serving African American woman in the Oregon Senate, emphasised the link between race and the implementation of punitive drug laws. “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,” she said, according to the Daily Caller. “It is institutional racism. We can pretend it doesn’t exist, but it does.”

Indeed, as the Drug Policy Alliance has publicised, Black and Latino people are far more likely than white people to be criminalised and incarcerated for drug offences in the US, despite all three groups using and selling drugs at comparable rates.

The implementation of HB-2355 and HB-3078 are set to be significant progressive steps in undoing the discriminatory harms of the war on drugs. Before becoming law, both bills will need to be signed by Oregon Governor Kate Brown – which she is expected to do soon.

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