SALEM — A new bill that makes personal-use possession of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs a misdemeanor instead of a felony was met with skepticism or opposition from many Douglas County officials.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill Tuesday, which goes into effect immediately. Oregon is one of only a few states in the U.S. that has changed the seriousness of the offense down to a misdemeanor.
District Attorney Rick Wesenberg said the intent of the law is clear, but he has concerns about the unintended effects of the bill.
“One of the consequences had been that folks could decide they wanted to get treatment, but it’s hard to imagine that looking at a misdemeanor, folks would want to enter the drug court,” Wesenberg said. “So if by reducing the consequences, that means that less people will seek treatment, and that’s dangerous.”
Commander Marty Case of the Douglas Interagency Narcotics team said they are still waiting for some clarifications on what the bill does. He said there are still a lot of questions to be answered.
“We knew it was coming down the pike, we’re just waiting for direction and guidance on how the district attorney’s office is going to handle it,” Case said. “There are some provisions as far as a prior felony, and also stipulations on the user amounts versus residual amounts.”
Among the bill’s supporters are the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police and the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association, which said felony convictions include unintended consequences, including barriers to housing and employment. But the two groups, in a letter to a state senator who backed the bill, said the new law “will only produce positive results if additional drug treatment resources accompany this change in policy.”
“Reducing penalties without aggressively addressing underlying addiction is unlikely to help those who need it most,” the groups warned. Another measure appropriated $7 million that can be used to pay for drug treatment.
Wesenberg said the Oregon District Attorney’s Association vehemently opposed the bill.
“This obviously presents challenges for law enforcement, but if folks aren’t getting treatment then that just hurts our community, and it’s not just a law enforcement issue, it’s going to be a Douglas County issue — how do we respond, how do we react,” he said.
Gary Klopfenstein of the Roseburg Police Department said there are pros and cons. He said police fear that first-time offenders will not be so motivated to enter drug court, where they’ve seen some good results.
“It could work, but add that to the mix of law enforcement resources that many communities including us, are facing now, that could be a recipe for disaster,” Klopfenstein said. “We’ll always enforce the laws despite our personal feelings about accountability, and hope that we’ll see their intended results.”
Douglas County Commissioner Chris Boice said the law is a “horrible idea” and he said it’s an attempt by the state to save money by saving space in jails and prisons.
“The problem is that the state legislature doesn’t even dispute that having possession of those drugs should be illegal,” said Boice. “The bottom line is that it gives drug users and abusers more freedom to break the law with less consequences.”
“Douglas County is in opioid crisis, and in a meth crisis, and in a heroin crisis,” Wesenberg said. “The governor and the Legislature just blunted law enforcement’s most effective tool in combating drug addiction.”
In a story by The Associated Press, Linn County District Attorney Doug Marteeny tried to get lawmakers to drop the de-felonization of dangerous drugs from the bill, which also targets police profiling.
“To change the classification of this behavior from a felony to a misdemeanor is tantamount to telling our school children that tomorrow it will be less dangerous to use methamphetamine than it is today,” he wrote.
An email response from Oregon State Police public information office said they are “neutral on the topic.”
Those who have a prior felony conviction won’t be afforded misdemeanor consideration, nor will people who have two or more prior drug convictions or possess more than user amounts.
The new law also directs a state commission to develop methods for recording data concerning police-initiated pedestrian and traffic stops. The measure is aimed at ensuring police aren’t stopping people based on racial or other profiling.