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OR Drug Decriminalization Measure Strikes at Racial Disparities in Arrests

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Wednesday, November 10, 2021   

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Proponents of a measure in Oregon to decriminalize possession of a small amount of drugs are hailing the reduction in arrests after its implementation this year.

Advocates say it is especially good news for communities of color, who made up a disproportionate number of drug convictions.

An Oregon Criminal Justice Commission report of 2015 data found Black Oregonians were convicted of felony drug possession at twice the rate of white Oregonians. For Native Americans, it was five times the rate.

Je Amaechi, capacity coordinator for Freedom to Thrive in Portland, was encouraged by the data.

"So just by taking that away, despite the fact that we don't really have a ton of data right now because it's brand new, we know that just arresting less people and convicting less people of felonies means better outcomes for specifically Black and native and Latinx communities," Amaechi explained.

Before decriminalization in 2019, there were more than 4,000 drug convictions. This year between February and August, there have been about 360.

However, critics say the initiative has not followed through in getting people to treatment, noting the small fraction of people who have called the hotline number on citations law enforcement gives for drug possessions.

Critics also point to the small number of people who have showed up in court after receiving citations.

Ron Williams, director of outreach, Health Justice Recovery Alliance, which was formed to implement the new measure, believes it will take a different way of thinking to properly assess the initiative's success.

"What we want to do is we want to move addiction services away from the criminal-justice frame and into the health and recovery frame," Williams urged. "By folks continuing to focus on citations and court appearances, they're still kind of in that mindset that people who use drugs should be punished."

Williams noted behavioral treatment options are growing in every county, with $30 million going out to organizations earlier this year and nearly $280 million coming soon. Importantly, he pointed out communities of color are steering the process.

"The folks who are making these decisions are people with substance-use background," Williams emphasized. "People who are alcohol and drug counselors, people who are case managers, people with lived experience of substance use disorder and are Black, brown, Latinx and tribal folks."

Disclosure: Freedom to Thrive contributes to our fund for reporting on Criminal Justice, Immigrant Issues, LGBTQIA Issues, and Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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