Minorities are charged more frequently with drug crimes than whites, Republican State Sen. Jackie Winters claimed. “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 during a hearing. “It is institutional racism. We can pretend it doesn’t exist, but it does.”
It is a dramatic shift in the state’s attitudes toward drugs and addictions to decriminalise possession of very dangerous substances as well as lowering the penalty in some cases. It also reduces the charge so those in the United States illegally, or only on a visa, would not be automatically deported, the Statesman Journal reported.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, who carried the bill, said knowing more about the problem is the first step toward fighting racial profiling. “Over the past few years, the Legislature has worked very hard to improve balance and fairness in our criminal justice system,” she said. “We’ve been working hard to address racial and economic barriers in our legal system and here is another chance to do that.”
The so-called “War on Drugs” has disproportionately seen nonwhite Americans being punished supporters of the bill say. A transgression 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.
Lawmaker Tawna Sanchez, a Democrat, 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.
The first of the two bills to be signed into law, HB 2355, decriminalises possession of small amounts of the drugs so long as the offender has neither spent time in prison nor more than two prior drug convictions on record, according to the Lund Report.
The second, HB 3078, reduces drug-related property crimes from serious transgressions to misdemeanors. It provides $7 million in funding for diversion programs to help lower Oregon’s prison population.
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.
Winters and other supporters of the bills argue that America’s drug crisis needs treatment, not prison time. Kimberly McCullough, Legislative Director of the Oregon branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), lauded the bills for helping “move Oregon toward treating drugs as a public health issue” and doing away with stereotypes.
“Excessive sentencing [for] drug and property offenses, exacerbates racial disparities in our justice system, increases our prison population, costs tax payers, and harms our families and communities,” McCullough said.
“It would be like putting them in the state penitentiary for having diabetes,” Democratic Rep. Mitch Greenlick told the Lund Report. “This is a chronic brain disorder and it needs to be treated this way.”
But not all lawmakers were buying the arguements: Senator Betsy Johnson called the bill hypocritical and harmful. “All of us bemoan the avalanche of drugs sweeping through our communities,” she said. “We lament the deaths of young people using opiates. Yet with this unbelievable disingenuous bill, we’re making it worse. Cleverly embedded in a bill that prohibits the odious practice of racial profiling, we are simultaneously accelerating the scourge of drugs decimating our communities and killing our kids.”
Before becoming law, both bills will need to be signed by Oregon Governor Kate Brown – which she is expected to do soon. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, crafted the bill.
Rosenblum asked a federal court in February this year to join a lawsuit filed by Washington state against an immigration ban imposed by President Donald Trump. She claimed it would harm Oregon’s businesses, residents, universities, health care and economy.