One of the many bills under consideration in the Oregon Legislature this year would erect a giant barrier to seeking help when a drug overdose occurs, and more dishearteningly, it is a backslide into anti-drug policy proven not to work.
Oregon House Bill 2797 would establish a mandatory minimum prison sentence of four to 10 years —and a maximum of 20 year—for anyone who manufactures or delivers illegal drugs that result in an overdose and death.
Passage of this bill could result in more Oregon residents in prison for the crime of attempting to save a life. In one potential scenario, let’s assume that one user gives drugs to another to help them “get better” while suffering through withdrawal. If the second user overdoses and the first one calls 9-1-1 for help, the caller could get up to 20 years in prison for supplying them the drugs that allowed the friend to overdose.
Proponents of the measure contend it would only be deployed to put high-level dealers and suppliers behind bars. However, passage would give prosecutors the opportunity to pursue charges against anyone regardless of lawmakers’ intent.
Any further consideration of this legislation would be a colossal act of folly. The United States already holds the record for the highest rates of incarceration in the world, and paying for a new wave of inmates as a result of HB 2797 will only increase the burden on the existing penal system while siphoning off funding from other projects.
The existence of mandatory minimum sentences do little to reduce crime. Reforms aimed at eliminating these penalties in 33 states are expected to save billions of dollars in the long term, according to a study by the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and The Pew Charitable Trusts along with other organizations. Moreover, states that have reformed mandatory minimum laws reduced the strain on correctional facilities and overall crime rates continued a long-term decline with the reforms in place.
The hard truth is that drug suppliers are not the problem. If someone in Oregon wants to use drugs, someone else will find a way to meet the demand. Instead of spending more money chasing boogeyman drug dealers and then locking them up for years at a time, the money spent prosecuting such cases and incarcerating the guilty would be better utilized in treatment programs and alleviating the socioeconomic and societal pressures that contribute to drug use. As a community, a state and a nation we have to accept that punishing an addict is not the same as caring for one. Only the second path leads to healing.
HB 2797 is another in a long line of failed mandatory sentencing policies and laws. Trying to achieve different results with the same tool only serves to add more credence to the old axiom regarding the definition of insanity.