U.S. News

Possession of small amounts of narcotics now minor offense in Oregon

(Reuters) - Possession of small quantities of narcotics like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine are no longer felonies in Oregon under a measure signed into law by Governor Kate Brown, who said on Wednesday that it undoes laws that had unfairly targeted minorities and the poor.

The bill, passed by the state legislature last month and signed into law on Tuesday, reduces to a misdemeanor offense the possession of small quantities of drugs that an individual has for personal use.

“Addressing disparities that too often fall along racial and socioeconomic lines should not be political issues,” Brown said in a statement, saying that the law will create a more equitable justice system.

Oregon joins at least nine other states that have reduced penalties or the class of offenses for possession of non-marijuana drugs, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Oregon already allows the use of both medical and recreational marijuana.

The intent of the Oregon law is to reduce jail populations and allow low-level offenders an opportunity to seek substance abuse treatment without a felony conviction on their record.

Certain people could still face felony charges if someone is already a convicted felon, has been caught twice before with a “useable” amount of the drugs, or is believed to be are selling the narcotics.

The state’s police chiefs and sheriffs in general supported the law, said Eve Costello, district attorney for Klamath County in rural south-central Oregon, who opposed the change.

“In my jurisdiction, we are 30 miles from the California border and a lot of drugs are pushed through here by the (drug) cartels,” Costello said in a phone interview.

The law could hinder police who can no longer use as leverage the threat of a felony charge against small-time users to get information to lead them to suppliers or traffickers, she said.

But the change does allow prosecutors to subject offenders to formal probation and supervision that “may change life-destructive behaviors,” she said.

Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Leslie Adler