Every time a car pulls up behind me while I am driving, my fingers tighten around the steering wheel, my heart races, and my palms sweat. I panic, thinking it might be a cop.
I am a commissioner on the state’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission, a gainfully employed writer, and a student. I am not what anyone would consider a “criminal.” So why do I fear the police? Because for five years I was addicted to heroin, and police—and the broader Oregon criminal justice system—declared me their enemy. They established the dynamic, and I followed their lead.
But that dynamic just changed for Oregonians who use drugs or experience addiction.
Oregon just made history. With the passage of Measure 110, we are the first state in the nation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs. We will simultaneously use cannabis tax revenue to fund addiction recovery centers across the state.
Once Measure 110 goes into effect, Oregonians caught with small amounts of meth, heroin, cocaine, or other hard drugs won’t be asked to appear in court. Rather, they will have the option of either paying a small fine or visiting an addiction recovery center for a free addiction assessment and recommendation.
Out of other wealthy countries, the United States has been slow to adopt harm reduction measures and a health-based approach to addiction. As punishment for drug crimes mounted in the US over the last few decades, so did our addiction and overdose rates, obliterating any theory that punishment can deter drug use. Fatal overdose rates and incarceration rates have increased exponentially since the 1980s. Drug possession continues to be the most common reason for arrest while fatal overdoses reach record levels year after year.
Data be damned, the US continues on the same punitive course even as overdose deaths mount, exceeding the annual deaths at the peak of the AIDS crisis. Other countries—namely Portugal—moved away from the US’ failed War on Drugs model and shifted to a health-based model. The sky did not fall. Addiction, overdose, and infection rates did.
Now in Oregon, we will become the first in the nation to adopt an evidence and health-based approach. This is a victory for human rights, not just drug policy. Our previous policies had effects so detrimental on my life, they linger with me still. And I know the same is true for countless other Oregonians.
My hard drug use started as an extension of teenage angst. The third time I smoked heroin—recreationally, never having been addicted—I overdosed. My boyfriend called 911 to save my life. The paramedics came for me, while the police came for him. He was convicted of possession, sentenced to jail time, and fired from his job. We were all evicted from our Gladstone apartment—including our innocent roommates who didn’t use drugs. Suddenly, my boyfriend found himself saddled with a lifelong felony conviction, and was left jobless, houseless, and hopeless. (In 2015, the law in Oregon was amended to protect anyone who had called 911 during a drug overdose from getting arrested for drug charges.)
Dejected and thrown far off-course from our once-hopeful life trajectory, the dabbling deteriorated into dependency over time. I bought heroin with my tip money after every shift at the pizza place where I worked. For years, I lived with the thought that the substance in my veins could land me in jail at any moment.
Far from being there to protect me, police were there to persecute and prosecute me. Police taught me to fear them. Through abject hostility towards me during every interaction, they taught me they were my enemy. I learned to feel unsafe in their presence, as do most people who use drugs regardless of any other criminal conduct.
After refusing to cooperate with police during my first arrest, I was handcuffed and put in the backseat of a Portland Police Bureau cruiser. On the drive to jail, the officer behind the wheel turned a corner so fast that my face slammed into the grate separating the backseat from the front seats. I was unable to use my hands to prevent the impact. I will never forget his smirk as his eyes met mine in the rearview mirror.
When people who use drugs are labeled as criminals for nothing more than their drug use, when we are made to strip naked in front of strangers, detox in jail cells, and are stuck with criminal records that affect our ability to get housing and jobs, we do not magically get better—in fact, the opposite can happen. As a defense mechanism, some people internalize the labels that have been foisted upon them. If you’re going to call me a criminal, I’ll show you criminal. Drug criminalization can become a stepping stone to other forms of crime.
Tossed in jail for drug possession, I met a diverse group of women with a wide array of criminal charges, some of whom became my new sources for buying drugs. I got fired from my job and lost my housing. Jail accelerated my addiction and easily could have killed me. The risk of an opioid overdose becomes 130 times greater after incarceration.
Mere months after my successive stints in jail for drug possession, I was charged in federal court for the overdose death of my friend and sentenced to five years in prison. Wildly privileged by race, class background, and the life insurance money my mom left me upon her prescription drug overdose death, I spent more than $20,000 on communication and commissary over the course of my incarceration. I witnessed bitter injustices—especially against my peers of color—and have dedicated my life to fighting back against them. My success after prison was bought with cold hard cash. I found recovery not because of my incarcerations, but despite them.
Addiction is defined as a failure to respond to negative consequences. Long before I ever stepped foot in jail, my addiction was miserable. It had negatively impacted my relationships, school, work, and finances. But I could not stop. Adding yet more consequences, misery, and shame only further ravaged my hope and soul. Hope—not the fear of being locked up—is the foundation of recovery.
A society that encourages people to hit “rock bottom” is one that encourages its members to get worse on the false assumption that will somehow help them get better. This belief, popular in 12-step and the courts, can have dire consequences. Every one of my friends that died from an overdose was incarcerated repeatedly first. It didn’t save them. Rest in peace Justin, Jesse, and Monty.
After years of police persecution and repeatedly having my freedom snatched away from me for possession, I have trauma that will not soon fade. Police will continue to strike fear in my heart.
Measure 110 comes too late for me personally. But in Oregon, no one else has to endure the things that my friends and I did. Hopefully, people who use drugs and police can learn to diminish their animosity. People won’t have to get arrested to get help. Our community can heal.
Morgan Godvin is a student at the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. She was born and raised in Portland.