What Should the Criminal Penalty Be for Drug Possession?

We asked the two candidates for Multnomah County district attorney.

Mike Schmidt, Nathan Vasquez Schmidt photo by Mick Hangland-Skill, Vasquez photo courtesy of Nathan Vasquez

With Oregon’s pioneering drug-decriminalization Measure 110 on the chopping block, the state’s Democratic lawmakers are pushing a compromise. They want to restore criminal penalties for possession of hard drugs—but less severe penalties than those on the books prior to the passage of 110, approved overwhelmingly by Oregon voters in 2020.

Back then, possession of small amounts of hard drugs like fentanyl was a Class A misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of a full year in prison. Measure 110 reduced that to a $100 fine.

Now, a special legislative committee convened by Democratic leaders to address the state’s addiction crisis has proposed making the crime a Class C misdemeanor. That carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail.

Predictably, no one is happy with the compromise. One side says it’s a return to the “war on drugs” that Measure 110 was crafted to end. The other says charging offenders with the lowest-level misdemeanor isn’t nearly enough to push people into treatment. (Republicans are backing a pair of alternative bills that would restore charging drug possession as the Class A misdemeanor, including one that mirrors a proposed ballot initiative that could go to voters this November.)

The outcome is currently unclear. (The Senate Democrats’ spokesperson told OPB on Monday that policymakers are still weighing their options, including creating a new “unclassified” misdemeanor.) But we’ll find out soon who wins the argument. This year’s legislative “short” session is a 35-day sprint.

But regardless of which law makes it out of Salem, its impact will depend on how it’s enforced. And the position of top prosecutor in Multnomah County could soon change hands.

Nathan Vasquez, a longtime county prosecutor, is running to unseat his boss, District Attorney Mike Schmidt, a major proponent of Measure 110 who’s shouldered much of the blame for rampant public drug use on Portland’s streets.

So we asked the candidates where they stood: Do you support rolling back decriminalization and, if so, how stiff should the criminal charge be?

Mike Schmidt: Won’t say

Schmidt spokesman Andrew Rogers provided WW a statement that did not directly answer the question. “He believes that addiction is a public health issue and must be treated as such,” Rogers wrote, and called on the Legislature to ban public use of hard drugs, a change Schmidt’s office has been lobbying for since last fall. After WW pushed Rogers to clarify whether Schmidt did or did not support recriminalization of drug possession, Rogers again referred WW to Schmidt’s proposal to ban public use. “He’s not going to negotiate policy via the press,” Rogers added.

Nathan Vasquez: Class A misdemeanor

Vasquez says Measure 110 has allowed drug abuse to get out of control, and he has a six-point strategy to “course correct.” Top of the list: “criminalization of hard drugs at the Class A misdemeanor level to provide accountability for treatment,” he tells WW. Rounding out the aspirational list are new diversion and treatment programs, like a sobering center, which Portland hasn’t had for years.

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