Drug prohibition has been the norm in the United States for decades, but its policies have failed to mitigate the effects of the ongoing opioid crisis that claimed over 70,000 lives in 2019 alone. Consequently, a growing number of Americans are looking towards other options that can effectively prevent drug abuse.
The most popular alternative? Decriminalization.
Throughout the last year, lawmakers in states such as Vermont and Missouri have introduced bills with the goal of decriminalizing the possession of certain federally illegal substances for personal use. These bills aim to follow the lead of Oregon, where state representatives voted to decriminalize personal possession of all drugs in November of 2020.
The gradual adoption of drug decriminalization into mainstream politics indicates that Americans are becoming more sympathetic towards those suffering from addiction and are moving away from the idea that punishment is the solution to substance abuse.
Drug decriminalization laws fall in line with the principles of harm reduction, a theory of substance abuse treatment that views drug addiction as a problem to be solved by healthcare rather than law enforcement.
Since President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in the early 1970s, the United States government has spent billions on the enforcement of anti-drug laws that have increased the country’s prison population by over 500 percent.
But drug overdose rates have largely stayed the same since the “war” began, with fentanyl overdoses now the leading cause of death for adults ages 18-45. It is clear that Nixon-era methods of dealing with substance abuse are not achieving their intended goal, and that drug policy needs to change.
Proponents of drug decriminalization such as the Drug Policy Alliance say that punishing addicts does not rehabilitate them. Prisons are often ill-equipped to provide the mental and physical healthcare that drug addicts need in order to avoid relapse.
The majority of American prisoners are rearrested after release, including the 20 percent who were incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. Thus, rather than imprisonment, policies such as Oregon’s push drug users towards state-sponsored rehabilitation facilities.
Although drug decriminalization policies are relatively new to American politics, lawmakers have been able to observe the relatively successful implementation of similar policies for over two decades.
In the year 2000, the Portuguese government voted to radically change its treatment of drug users, based on the then-obscure idea of harm reduction. While other states around the world were cracking down on drug use, Portugal fully legalized the public and private consumption of all previously illegal substances.
If found to be in possession of a controlled substance, Portuguese citizens are now sent to a council of experts that decides whether they will be sent to a state rehabilitation facility or fined (similar to Oregon’s drug decriminalization laws).
Since 2001, drug-related deaths have fluctuated, but remained below the average for the rest of Europe. In addition, drug-related incarcerations have also dropped dramatically.
Although Portugal’s policy is nowhere near perfect and largely fails to address the social issues that cause drug addiction, its results strongly suggest that harm reduction leads to a healthier population.
With opioid addiction now considered an epidemic-level public-health crisis, it is clear that the “tough on crime” policies of the past five decades have failed. If lawmakers want to effectively prevent the abuse of dangerous drugs, decriminalization must be adopted in order to give those suffering from drug addiction the compassion and healthcare that they need.