Should all drugs be decriminalized?
- In February 2021, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize drug possession of heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, and oxycodone in small amounts. Instead of jail time, those found to be in possession of these drugs will instead get a $100 fine.
- A 2015 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that “almost all (99.5%) drug offenders in federal prison were serving sentences for drug trafficking,” and 35% of those drug offenders had “either no or minimal criminal history” at their time of sentencing. The average prison sentence for federal drug offenders was 11 years.
- Various polls find the US population favor decriminalizing all or most drugs (2019 Cato poll reports 55% of Americans favor decriminalization and 2021 ACLU poll reports 66%), with marijuana legalization being a focus.
- A 2019 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that the “correctional population dropped to less than 6.4 million” for the first time since 1999. It dropped by 1% in 2019 and has been declining an average of 1.3% since 2009.
When you consider whether governing authorities across US states or federally should decriminalize all drugs, remember it's not the same as legalization. Legalization eliminates consequences for possession, while decriminalization holds offenders accountable without jail time. It recognizes substance abuse and addiction as a legitimate disease and acknowledges our current system's failures at approaching the condition of those caught using.
First, drug policies have demonstrated an unfair bias by arresting far more poor, Black, and Brown citizens for possessing the same quantities of identical substances as wealthy and Caucasian suspects. This serves to perpetuate the problem of racial inequality that has plagued our country since its inception. Additionally, decriminalizing personal-use amounts of any illegal drug substance can help reduce the overall funding spent on enforcing drug laws along with the subsequent cost of incarceration. Redirecting those financial resources to mental health or addiction services creates a more effective solution than jail time. Even with involuntary detox during incarceration, those who struggle with addiction are likely to relapse due to a lack of follow-up treatment plans.
The two weeks following prison release are proven to pose the greatest risk of death by overdose. A jail sentence is not only an ineffective deterrent from drug use, but it aggravates underlying behavioral issues with no solution for reform. Clearly, treating drug abuse as a disease and not a 'moral failing' is the path forward. Only 1 in 10 convicted drug offenders enter treatment because they lack access, and end up in jail.
Let's change the system of charging addiction as a crime; it's not working.
Although decriminalizing drugs is not the same as legalizing them, the repercussions of this act will be felt by both individuals and all of society. On an individual level, more people may be open to experimenting with drugs as their fear of legal prosecution is removed. This is especially dangerous for individuals who are more likely to get addicted. Teens and young adults alone amount to 19.3% of individuals misusing prescription medications, and this percentage is destined to increase if drugs are decriminalized.
Furthermore, making experimentation (and consequentially addiction) more likely comes from the lower cost and higher availability of drugs once this criminal barrier is removed. This was visible when heroin production increased six-fold in 2009. People transitioned from abusing prescription opioids to street heroin as the latter was suddenly made cheaper, more available, and delivered a better high.
As the number of addicts increases, the cost of substance abuse across the nation will further increase. Currently, the cost is over $600 billion annually. This sum includes direct health care and incarceration costs. However, what it doesn't cover are the costs to society, such as deaths from overdose, spread of STDs, abortion, miscarriage, single-motherhood, divorce, and homelessness.
Decriminalizing drugs also won't put an end to drug trafficking. In fact, the increased demand may increase sales and result in more criminal activity, as seen in Portugal. According to both the UN and European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Addiction, the number of drug-related murders increased after it decriminalized drugs.
In addition to these concerns, opposers of decriminalization fear this act can lead to legalization. It took non-medical cannabis around 30 years to become legal once decriminalized. If the same happens to hard drugs like heroin or meth, the country will be burdened with substance abusers.