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The Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act would shift focus of drug laws from criminality to health care.

COURTESY PHOTO: IP44 - More Treatment campaign logoA government think tank says drug convictions in Oregon could drop by 90% and racial disparities in drug arrests and convictions could be significantly reduced if a ballot measure that would decriminalize low-level drug possession passes in November.

According to analysis from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, the estimated decrease in drug convictions due to the proposed Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act in Initiative Petition 44 could lead to fewer collateral consequences because of criminal convictions, such as difficulty finding housing or employment.

Under current Oregon law, most drug possession charges are misdemeanor offenses. Possession charges become felonies when someone has multiple prior drug convictions, a prior felony conviction, possesses a "substantial" amount of a drug or is convicted of a commercial drug offense.

The Oregon Legislature lowered many felony drug offenses to misdemeanors in 2017. But according to Oregon Criminal Justice Commission data, Oregon law enforcement makes around 8,900 drug arrests resulting in 4,000 convictions each year. Those defendants are disproportionately Black and Native American.

But drug possession convictions disproportionately impact Black people in Oregon. According to data in the report, Black people are 2.3 times more likely to be convicted of a drug charge than white people and Native Americans are 1.2 times more likely.

The initiative, if approved by voters, would reduce the penalty for possession of small quantities of drugs like methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine to a Class E violation. That would be punishable by a maximum fine of $100 that could be waived with a health assessment to get treatment.

Under the new law structure, a drug possession charge would only become a misdemeanor for a substantial amount of a controlled substance, and a commercial offense would still result in a felony.

This would reduce criminal drug convictions dramatically across races, but would particularly impact Black and Indigenous people, who would see overall convictions decrease by almost 94%, according to supporters.

Criminal convictions limit people's ability to find housing, get a job or qualify for student loans, according to the analysis.

For Bobby Byrd, an organizer of the More Treatment campaign that advocates for the initiative, a 26-year-old drug arrest continues to haunt him. According to a campaign press release, Byrd was arrested in North Portland, though he didn't have drugs on him at the time. Byrd, who is Black, was the only person arrested even though several white people also were there.

The criminal record, he said, led him to be fired from jobs at Wells Fargo and Intel, and prevented him from getting professional licenses or renting an apartment.

"Our current drug laws can ruin lives based on a single mistake," he said in the release, "sticking you with a lifelong criminal record that prevents you from getting jobs, housing and more. This initiative won't change my past, but I don't want anyone to go through what I went through."

The analysis by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission was requested by members of the Oregon Legislature.

The Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act also would expand drug treatment options by creating grants for treatment services by diverting the taxes collected from legal marijuana above $45 million.

A joint project in 2017 by Pamplin Media Group and the nonprofit InvestigateWest found criminal justice disparities across the state and in Multnomah County.

Gina Scalpone
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