This is a strange and deeply disturbing time. I’d like to be writing more about racial justice and Covid-19 and, in an indirect way, I did just this morning, at Medium. My story looks at two progressive, criminal-justice ballot initiatives that are all but certain to be on the November ballot in the state of Oregon. One would decriminalize possession of all drugs–yes, all drugs. The other would make psychedelic medicines available under a tightly regulated regime.
The story is timely because, as most know, the criminal justice system discriminates against people of color, from arrest and conviction through sentencing and parole–and, these days, via the coronavirus. I learned while researching the story that the first federal prisoner to die from Covid-19 was Patrick Jones, a 49-year-old man who was serving a 27-year sentence for selling cocaine. (One reason why his sentence was so long was that he lived within 1,000 feet of a junior college. Really.) Jones had a record of criminal convictions, most for burglarly, but he was not a violent man, by all accounts. Here’s the best one I could find, from the excellent Marshall Project. What’s more, he seemed to have turned a corner in prison. (Some experts say that career criminals age out of crime.) Last fall, Jones wrote a heartbreaking letter to a federal judge seeking release; he was turned down and that decision became a death sentence.
Oregon’s proposed new drug law would not have saved Patrick Jones. It decriminalizes possession of drugs, not the sale. But it is a meaningful step in the right direction. Here’s how my story begins:
Oregon is approaching a milestone in the drug wars: It’s poised to become the first state in the US to decriminalize possession of all drugs, from marijuana and ecstasy to heroin and LSD.
This fall, voters in Oregon will be asked to approve an initiative that would end prison sentences for people who possess drugs for their personal use, and instead offer treatment to all who want it.
Supporters of the ballot initiative, known as IP44, have collected 147,000 signatures, well over the 112,000 signatures need to secure a place on the ballot. Internal polling shows that most Oregonians favor decriminalization, according to Anthony Johnson, a lawyer and one of the chief petitioners for IP44.
“This is a watershed moment,” Johnson told me. “Oregonians — and people nationwide — realize that what we are doing around the drug war isn’t working.”
You can read the rest of the story here.