Law enforcement, legal experts adapt as drug decriminalization takes effect

Officials in the legal and law enforcement communities are adapting to a radical shift in Oregon's approach to drug addiction.

Posted: Feb 1, 2021 3:14 PM
Updated: May 3, 2021 12:43 PM

EUGENE, Ore. -- Measure 110 went into effect on Monday, decriminalizing the possession of small quantities of drugs, and officials in the legal and law enforcement communities are adapting to a radical shift in Oregon's approach to drug addiction.

The new measure reduces the possession of small amounts of drugs to a violaiton. If a person is found with drugs, police will give them a citation. They then have the choice of paying a $100 fine or taking part in a health assessment, in which they can be referred to treatment if desired.

“I’m glad that Oregonians saw that treating addicts as criminals is not a step forward and doesn’t make anyone safer," said Brook Reinhard, executive director of Public Defender Services of Lane County.

According to Reinhard, in 2020 the nonprofit law firm was involved in more than 300 cases of people charged with drug possession alone.

“Those are people who after February first of this year would not have been treated like criminals. They would have been treated like people who had a legitimate addiction that needed to be dealt with," he said.

Where Reinhard sees an opportunity to tackle the state's drug addiction problem, Lane County District Attorney Patty Perlow sees an opportunity for rising crime.

“I predict that property crime is going to go up, drug usage is going to go up," she said.

According to Perlow, the measure's health assessment is no replacement for drug court and traditional treatment. The measure also impacts how law enforcement can investigate drug offenses. According to a legal bulletin from the Oregon Department of Justice,  law enforcement officers now need to reach a higher bar in order to justify stopping someone they believe is in possession of drugs.

“The reclassification of mere possession as a violation will limit officers' authority to make initial stops based on suspicion of drug possession, to investigate suspected drug possession even during a lawful stop made for another offense and to make arrests," the bulletin reads.

According to the Department of Justice, officers now need probable cause in order to justify investigating violation-level possession of drugs. This is a higher standard than reasonable suspicion, which is required for drug offenses that remain crimes under Measure 110 like manufacture and distribution.

The bulletin says, “An officer’s discovery that the detainee has a noncriminal quantity of a controlled substance does not, by itself, provide grounds to expand a stop to inquire or request consent to search for evidence of a criminal-level drug offense."

“We’re going to be in the position of needing to presume something is a violation until it is proven otherwise," said Perlow. “So if you’re shooting up heroin in a Fred Meyer bathroom and someone calls the police, unless the officer has a reasonable suspicion that you’ve been committing another crime, all they can do is take your drugs and cite you for the violation level offense.”

Still, Reinhard believes that officers will be capable of fighting drug crimes in the community.

“It’s just a question of a different standard on whether or not your best case will be a crime or a violation. Police officers are very good at telling the difference in this. They are trained well on doing this, and I’m confident they will be able to do this successfully. And if not, we will help them," he said. 

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