Felony drug convictions in Clatsop County dropped by more than 40 percent in the year since a new state law reduced the penalty for drug possession to a misdemeanor for first-time offenders.
The stark decline was part of a trend across Oregon, as prosecutors adjusted to a law meant to soften the consequences of being caught with small amounts of heroin, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs.
Drug offenders often face jail, probation and treatment, but a felony conviction can also make it harder to find a job or housing, eroding the stability that can help people overcome drug abuse.
The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, in a report to the state Legislature in September, said the law has already had a profound impact on the criminal justice system. Statewide, the number of felony drug convictions fell from 5,145 in the fiscal year before the law to 2,889 over the past year, or 44 percent. In Clatsop County, felony drug convictions tumbled from 63 to 37, or 41 percent.
The report also found that racial disparities in felony drug convictions, a significant issue in Portland and other urban areas, have narrowed.
State Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum told state lawmakers the law reflects the belief that “addiction cannot be addressed through punishment alone, and that a conviction with the potential to take away a person’s employment and housing leaves them poorly situated to overcome that addiction.”
The Oregon Association Chiefs of Police and the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association endorsed reducing the penalty for drug possession, with the understanding drug treatment would be provided. But the law had critics at the Legislature and in law enforcement.
State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, was the only Democrat to vote against the idea in the Senate. Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis warned last year that it “runs up the white flag” to heroin and meth addiction.
Marquis has not changed his opinion.
“That has a pretty dramatic effect, and you can see that,” the district attorney said of the data after the first year. “I mean, that’s a huge reduction in convictions.
“I don’t believe that that reflects an actual reduction in the problem.”
Prosecutors and police are likely being less aggressive about drug possession given the misdemeanor penalty and an overcrowded county jail, Marquis said. Across the state, misdemeanor drug convictions have risen sharply since the law, but not in Clatsop County.
“There’s really no question as to why,” Marquis said. “Which is that the law has now said that these are no more important than a minor vandalism charge. And there’s going to be no long-term consequences.”
The law, which took effect in August 2017, reclassified the possession of small amounts of drugs from felonies to misdemeanors. The threshold for heroin, for example, is less than 1 gram, while methamphetamine is less than 2 grams.
People who have any prior felony conviction, or two or more drug possession convictions, are not eligible for the reduced penalty.
Astoria Police Chief Geoff Spalding has not given his officers any special direction on how to approach drug possession since the change to the law.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s business as usual in terms of enforcing those laws,” he said.