The de-criminalization of street drugs and narcotics

Here's what Oregonians can expect to see from the state's recent decriminalization of small amounts of heroin and other street drugs


The year 2020 will be famous for myriad ills and missteps; some created by natural events and causes, some man-made.

We may look back at the November 2020 election and count the decriminalization of amounts of “personal use” narcotics among them. Yes, the Oregon electorate voted for exactly that with Oregon Measure 110.

Will other states follow suit? Let's hope they first pay attention to the lessons we can learn from California Proposition 47.

This June 26, 2020 file photo shows volunteers delivering boxes containing signed petitions in favor of the measure to the Oregon Secretary of State's office in Salem.
This June 26, 2020 file photo shows volunteers delivering boxes containing signed petitions in favor of the measure to the Oregon Secretary of State's office in Salem. (Yes on Measure 110 Campaign via AP)

California’s cautionary tale of Proposition 47

Passed into law in November 2014, California’s Proposition 47, also known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Safe Schools Initiative, reduced a variety of amounts of personal possession of narcotics from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Most all drugs, including heroin, LSD, cocaine and other drugs fell under the new law. Even Rohypnol, the so-called “date rape drug,” was reduced to a misdemeanor for possession, under Prop. 47. Think about that a minute, considering what amount of Rohypnol could be deemed for “personal use” that could be used to drug and incapacitate others.

Even worse, the law raised the amount needed to cross the threshold for a theft to be declared a felony – including theft from the immediate area of a victim, shoplifting and other thefts – from $400 to $950. Some white-collar crimes of counterfeiting and passing bad checks were changed to misdemeanors as well. Prior property crime felonies labeled “Petty Theft with a Prior, Receiving Stolen Property, and Burglary provisions associated with retail theft” (entering a building with the intent to commit theft) were all reduced to misdemeanors under Proposition 47.

The theft laws opened the door for serial and organized gangs and theft rings who prey on retail businesses selling high-end jewelry and electronics to drug stores selling high-priced goods such as razor blades and alcohol. You can search YouTube for video of bands of thieves filling backpacks with merchandise and even using rolling luggage to collect goods off the shelves for easy transport, often under the watchful eye of store employees.

Some saw the devastating effects of California’s Proposition 47 and attempted to repeal parts of it with another November 2020 ballot initiative. Proposition 20 asked voters to curb the serial and organized thefts by making those crimes eligible to be prosecuted as felonies. The ballot measure also attempted to introduce a type of “three strikes” system for parolees who had violated their parole three times, to be sent back to prison. The ballot measure would have also called for some misdemeanor arrestees to submit DNA for testing to be put into a criminal database. Unfortunately, Proposition 20 was defeated

The domino effect of Prop 47 was expected: Law enforcement put less emphasis on the enforcement of personal possession of any drug. Prior to Prop 47, felony drug arrests would sometimes be used as leverage to get addicts into court-supervised rehabilitation programs as a provision of probation in exchange for reduced charges to misdemeanor status or by reducing or even eliminating any jail time exposure whatsoever. With no threat of felony prosecution or possible extensive sentences, leverage to get some into drug counseling and treatment was gone.

The Oregon vote seems to come at an odd time in history, as America grapples with the highest numbers of drug overdose deaths in recent years. In 2019, nearly 71,000 drug overdoses were noted by the CDC, an increase from the previous record-setting year of 2017 of just over 70,000. It is expected that 2020 will see similar numbers or numbers that will exceed the 2019 statistics.

The deaths come from overdoses of legal prescription drugs and opiate-based pain medications such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, Vicodin, codeine and morphine, to illegal drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.

what Oregon officers can expect 

Street use of drugs in public and public displays of those under the influence of drugs is commonplace in cities in California. Coupled with the Martin v Boise 9th Circuit ruling and agreement by the Supreme Court, street camping and homeless camps have proliferated, often characterized by obvious displays of open drug use and dealing.

It is important to note that the promise of the elimination of black market drugs, including “legal marijuana“ has never come to fruition in California. Associated black market drug crime and street dealing remain present on California streets.

The introduction of the Oregon initiative does not mention research of California or other states with modified drug laws, but Oregonians may learn from California what to expect next. 

There may be predictable outcomes and consequences:

  • Fewer on-view arrests for possession of narcotics.
  • Fewer prosecutions.
  • Lower populations of city and county inmates in jail for narcotic-related arrests.
  • Fewer felony arrests across the state. California wildly claimed the successes of Proposition 47 by touting the fewer number of felony arrests, but researchers and law enforcement professionals know that changing crimes from felonies to misdemeanors will certainly show in statistics. Perhaps an asterisk should accompany FBI Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) for felony crime arrests and for drug arrests in general.

With only a threat of a $100 per violation fine in Oregon, the phrase "no consequence equals no deterrence" comes to mind. Under current conditions and in line with court rulings, those with no financial ability or means to pay such a fine will no doubt be forgiven the drug-related fines.

We can probably expect more cases of:

  • Public use of drugs, public intoxication and driving under the influence of drugs (DUID).
  • More calls for service regarding passed out or unresponsive supine individuals on the sidewalk, in cars and in public spaces.
  • More open-air drug camps, drug-related gang activity and related crime.

In addition, we will probably see more public health concerns such as:

  • Overdoses, overdose deaths and long-term health effects.
  • More EMS calls for service regarding ill effects related to drug use.
  • Fentanyl-related calls for EMS services.
  • Youth-related exposure to drugs and by-products such as baked goods, gummies and edibles.
  • More EMS transports and strain on emergency rooms.

Property crime may increase unless Oregon makes drugs available for free. Before you start laughing, consider proposals where drug-addicted individuals can bring drugs into a clinical setting and have their drugs tested before injecting in a clean and safe and monitored injection site.

Forecast for the future

For those readers who believe that these are a West Coast phenomenon, remember that progressive policies tend to start on either coast and travel inland. The marijuana policy of present-day is an example of a federal prohibition of a drug that made a journey from the 1990s, packaged as “compassionate use” of legal medicinal marijuana in California, to other states approving the same, over the course of a few years. Recent trends to legalize marijuana for recreational use altogether have been approved in several states as well.

The Boise Law defeated any attempts to shut down open-air drug markets where open prevalent use was rampant. Together, in “normal” times, this could have placed law enforcement officers in the middle of a no-win situation. There may be hope, however, in the form of the call to pull police away from situations involving the homeless, mental illness and drug use in public spaces. This may actually be a good time for law enforcement to experience a receding of “mission creep” and to move away from issues involving the mentally ill, drug use and homeless situations.

NEXT: What research shows about policing in an era of legal marijuana

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