Albany Police Lt. Jerry Drum brought a catalog of digital scales into Capt. Eric Carter’s office one morning in late July.
The two officers planned to order at least one precision scale in preparation for something they never had to do before: measure the exact amount of methamphetamine found on a suspect.
This new normal became reality July 5, when the Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 2355, which is essentially written to reduce racial profiling by requiring officers to record the age, race, ethnicity and sex of every person stopped and questioned. But the measure also contains a subsection that reduces possession of methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and ecstasy to a misdemeanor in some circumstances.
The bill passed 36-24 in the House, and 20-9 in the Senate. Two House Republicans and four in the Senate voted for the bill. (Among mid-valley legislators, Democrats voted for the measure and Republicans voted against it.)
Those in favor of the bill maintain it will create the opportunity for treatment for drug abusers, rather than simply punishing them with jail time and a felony conviction. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon argues that felony charges for minor drug possession create a burden on the judicial system and could damage the lives of first-time offenders.
“Harsh drug sentences have damaged families and ruined lives,” reads the ACLU's official position. “A felony conviction for small-scale drug possession can prevent people from getting housing, a job or a student loan. The current approach is also unfair. People of color possess drugs at the same rates as everyone else but are more much likely to be arrested.” (That latter argument provided part of the reason for combining the two topics, racial profiling and drug convictions, in the same bill.)
The Oregon State Sheriffs' Association and the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police supported the bill, while the Oregon District Attorney’s Association fought it. In Linn County, Sheriff Bruce Riley broke with his association to oppose the bill. Still, Riley agrees with the spirit of the bill where it concerns racial profiling.
But he disagrees with the provision on meth and other drugs. “I think it sends a horrible message,” he said. “So much of our crime in Linn County is related to drug use.”
That sentiment is echoed in the attitude of patrol officers. Albany Police Officer Emily Zessin, asked how frequently she encounters methamphetamine, said, "Pretty much everybody we talk to has it."
For example, during a routine patrol last month, Zessin and fellow officer Blake Miller contacted Victor Sells, who is on probation for meth possession.
Sells was staying in a van with a friend near Wal-Mart when the officers found him. After a search, Zessin discovered a glass pipe with meth residue, and Sells admitted to having smoked in the past few days.
Before July 5, even a trace amount on a shirt cuff would warrant a felony charge. But the law is so new that each officer now carries a flow chart designed to help them determine how to charge a suspect. The process often has officers conferring with each other over amounts and arrest criteria in the field.
The golden rule is that any amount below 2 grams, considered a usable quantity, does not count as a felony, unless the suspect has a prior felony conviction, a commercial drug offense, or two prior convictions for possession of a controlled substance.
Sells had all those, but because his pipe had only residue — which does not qualify as a usable quantity — it was confiscated and he was slapped with only a misdemeanor.
Linn County District Attorney Doug Marteeny said the bill delivers the wrong message, and added that he believes it will decrease public safety.
“If you decrease disincentives, more people will use. That is a basic economic principle,” he said. “The law is a reflection of society’s moral standards, so it communicates behavior standards to our youngest and most impressionable citizens.”
Marteeny added that by making possession of meth and heroin a misdemeanor, the law sends the message to children that “possession or use of those drugs is less reprehensible."
While Marteeny and Riley say they will uphold the law, they are also in a position to speak out against it. As for Carter, Drum and their fellow officers, their job is to adapt to the new law and enforce it as effectively as they can.
That's where the scales come in.
“I want to be able to measure a grain of salt,” Drum joked, referring to the new game of quantifying the amount of a controlled substance found on a suspect.
Asked whether he will encounter more citizens in possession of the controlled substances, especially meth, Drum said he thinks it will be unlikely.
“Most of the people we arrest for these offenses have already 'punched their card,'” he said, using police slang for a person with prior arrests, “so we’ll be processing them as felonies anyway.”
Still, one of the side effects of the bill, and one that has both Drum and Marteeny shaking their heads, is the fact that the people who do only get a misdemeanor charge will still, absent a felony conviction, be allowed to possess firearms.
“Would you want a meth user to be allowed to have a gun?” asked Marteeny. “In light of the meth and heroin epidemic, this is the wrong message to give our kids.”
Marteeny also talked about the effects of methamphetamine use on families, explaining how very pervasive the addiction is.
“If you want to say that a person using meth in his own home doesn’t hurt society, I would say that when you enter a house where there’s no more than a narrow path among clutter that leads from a child’s bed to the TV set, where that child has a couple toys, and where all the adults in the house are using meth all day and night, I would say that behavior affects society," Marteeny said. "The drug will lead people to treat their own children like animals.”
State Rep. Andy Olson, a Republican, voted against the bill. He predicts “a major turnaround in terms of crimes in the state” as a result of the bill, citing the fact that 85 percent of property crimes in Oregon are drug-driven.
“What’s going to happen to drug courts?” he asked, referring to the reformatory programs that sentence drug offenders to rigorous treatment and accountability programs in lieu of criminal punishment. “The carrot and the stick is gone.”
Asked whether those who voted in favor of the bill simply glossed over the part of it that reduces charges for drug offenses, Olson said he worked hard to prevent that. He explained that he went into detail on the House floor, talking for more than an hour before the vote, describing the problems with the bill. Further, he said, he would have voted for the bill if it hadn't included the provisions regarding drugs.
“I tried really hard to separate the two,” he said. “I would have supported the racial profiling, but could not support the drug portion. We believe in restoration and forgiveness, but I don’t think 2355 gets there at all.”
But Albany defense attorney Forrest Reid said he believes the bottom line on the law is that it will reduce costs in the criminal justice system.
“We do spend a lot of money prosecuting felony drug offenders,” he said. “The way we have been fighting this has been very expensive and I don’t think it has been very helpful.”
The ACLU, in its support of the bill, also argued that the state’s limited funding for law enforcement would be better spent elsewhere.
“Arresting and prosecuting people for small-scale drug cases as felonies is the wrong priority,” reads the group's statement.
Still, addressing the idea that the bill will direct more offenders to treatment programs, Reid said legal mechanisms already exist that let drug offenders seek treatment and avoid jail time and a felony conviction. These include a conditional discharge, which through a plea agreement lets a defendant complete an 18-month program, during which time they are required to complete treatment programs, remain accountable and obey all laws and other set rules. At the end of that time, the charges will be erased from their record.
“And in fact," Reid added, "during the pendency of the program, the charges won’t even show up as a conviction."
Marteeny echoed Reid's sentiment when he explained that a first-time felony conviction can be expunged in three years. The point, from both the DA and the defender, is that avenues already exist for defendants to clear their record. But Reid also allowed that the state's drug problem is a problem that needs a solution.
"We need to do whatever we can do to rid the world of these awful drugs," he said.
And Sheriff Riley said House Bill 2355 isn't likely to do that. In fact, he said, the measure is akin to legalizing marijuana in terms of creating new drug offenders.
“Not every marijuana user is going to be a heroin addict," he said. "But every heroin addict I’ve dealt with started out with marijuana.”
As for Zessin, she said she doesn't like having repeated contact with illegal drug users, and can only hope they can turn themselves around. And while officers like Zessin hope, Marteeny laments that the new law will only diminish that hope, and ultimately will reduce public safety.
"This legislative session has been the most unfriendly to public safety that I have ever seen," he said.