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May 22nd, 2002 Brittany Schaeffer | News Stories
 

High Crime & Punishment

     
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Ever since Oregon decriminalized pot 27 years ago, it has had a reputation as a haven for recreational drug users (NBA players notwithstanding).

Indeed, a review of incarceration statistics shows that Oregon jails and prison aren't packed with weekend tokers. In fact, in state prisons, where the bulk of convicted criminals are housed, only 7 percent of inmates are there primarily on drug charges. (State corrections officials note that this figure doesn't include drug users convicted of more serious crimes, such as assault.)

In Multnomah County, where jail beds are at a premium, police will now issue you a citation, rather than make an arrest, if they find you with only a small amount of drugs.

There are a host of factors that determine sentencing, but generally, whether you serve serious time comes down to two things: what's in the baggie and whether the feds decided to get involved.

Suspected drug users in Oregon can be charged with a violation, a misdemeanor or a felony. Getting nabbed with a joint packed with less than an ounce of marijuana will likely result in a violation (similar to a traffic ticket) punishable by a fine of $500 to $1,000 and no jail time.

Possession of other drugs (and larger amounts of pot) may get you a felony charge, but even then, a trip to the state prison is unlikely if there's no proof that you were looking to sell or distribute drugs. (Baggies and scales--even a large amount of cash--can be used against you.)

"The majority of the possession cases fall into probationary categories," says Oregon City criminal-defense lawyer Tim Lyons. "You may spend a little time in county jail, but no one goes to prison for possession."

In Multnomah County, a nonviolent offender charged with simple possession of a "personal amount" of drugs is usually tried in the Sanction-Treatment-Opportunity-Progress drug court. Created in 1991 by Judge Harl Haas and Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk, STOP court sentences users to drug treatment programs and probation, rather than putting them in jail.

If the offender successfully completes the treatment program and probation, no conviction is recorded. "The goal of this program was to get treatment for those people who were being recycled through the courts," says Haas. "The people in this program are essentially getting another chance."

While the state system seems pretty straightforward, the feds are another matter. Each year the U.S. Attorney's office in Oregon evaluates 200 to 400 drug cases that may be subject to federal prosecution. According to several criminal-defense lawyers, how the feds determine which cases will be prosecuted in federal courts is a mystery.

Sentencing laws in federal courts include stringent mandatory minimums and equally unbending sentencing guidelines for those not subject to the minimums.

Take the case of former Portland resident Hamedah Hasan. In 1993, Hasan was sentenced to life imprisonment in Omaha, Neb., after being convicted of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine in connection with a drug ring. While the feds never found drugs on Hasan, she was nonetheless convicted on the testimony of two dealers facing incarceration.

And she's not alone.

Out of the 117 people convicted of drug charges in Oregon federal courts in the fiscal year 2000, all but two spent time behind bars. The same year, the average length of imprisonment was 7.7 years for trafficking and nine months for simple possession.

Hasan's sentence, since reduced to 27 years, and those of others have come under fire from watchdog groups such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, who claim that nonviolent, average people are unfairly being locked up for years. Local FAMM representative Lorraine Heller believes that cases such as Hasan's illustrate this misuse of federal drug laws. "It's tragic that essentially good people are being thrown into federal penitentiaries--sometimes for life," she says. (For more information see the FAMM website, www.famm.org.)

While the severe sentences are unnerving, Senior Deputy District Attorney Mark MacDonald says most recreational users aren't in much danger. "You're not going to be tried in federal court if you are simply caught in possession of drugs for personal use," he says.

 
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