Decriminalization: Rethinking the War on Drugs

By: Dayna Rauliuk

One out of five people in prison or jail are locked up for a drug offense, and on any given day almost half a million people are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. In 1971, President Nixon declared a war on drugs, which led to the establishment of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) two years later. The DEA became the central federal agency tasked with controlling drug abuse. President Nixon’s war on drugs has continued in the following decades. The Reagan Administration in the 80’s marked the beginning of increased incarceration with those behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses increasing from “50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997.”

The war on drugs has not been successful. Instead of curtailing drug use, both the supply and use of drugs has increased, along with the creation of extensive black market networks within the United States. The war on drugs has also led to mass incarceration and a waste of resources, costing over $100 billion annually to law enforcement agencies. In recent years, the idea of focusing on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment has become more popular. 

In 2001, Portugal became the first country to decriminalize the consumption of all drugs. The country began focusing on treating drug addicts as patients instead of criminals. This has allowed the police to focus on traffickers and dealers and has freed up resources to offer rehabilitative support to drug users. Under the law, drug dealers still go to prison, while those with less than a 10-day supply of any drug are sent to a facility where they can learn about treatment and available medical services.

In February 2021, Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to decriminalize the possession of hard drugs after a wide margin of voters voted for Ballot Measure 110. Supporters of the measure sought a new approach to the drug problem because criminalization was not working in their state. In 2018, there were more than 1.6 million arrests for drug possession alone. Individuals that were convicted likely did not receive drug treatment and would later face hardships because of that conviction, such as difficulty getting a job, or housing. The hope of this new measure is to focus on treatment. Now, if an individual is found with personal-use amounts of drugs they would face a civil citation rather than a criminal citation. Additionally, addiction recovery centers are now required within each existing “coordinated care organization service area.” Increasing access to treatment centers will hopefully aid in reducing the number of drug users. The plan is to fund these addiction recovery centers with tax revenue from Oregon’s marijuana industry. 

In recent years, more states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Because legalization is still relatively new, there is not a lot of data on the effects of legalization. However, from what has been gathered, violent crime has neither soared nor plummeted after legalization. Although legalization of marijuana can reduce the number of drug-related arrests, it still does not recognize the abuse of hard drugs and the need to treat addiction as opposed to criminalizing it.  

Based on the ineffectiveness of the war on drugs in actually reducing drug use and supply, an alternative method should be adopted. As Portugal has adopted, and now Oregon, decriminalization of drug possession can be a promising alternative. This will hopefully destigmatize drug addiction and increase treatment levels for drug users, thereby saving lives. Further, this can potentially reduce the racial and ethnic disparities in convictions and arrests for drug crimes. This would also reduce the potential long-term effects that a drug-related criminal conviction can have for a person, such as hurting employment or housing prospects and increasing the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offenses. In addition, some of the $100 billion annually spent around the world, could be diverted to fund resources and treatment for drug users. 

In conclusion, it is time to rethink the war on drugs and to adopt decriminalization at the state and federal level. 

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