It’s common to call the “War on Drugs” a failure. In truth, it is at minimum a failure, and the tens of thousands of deaths each year in the U.S. prove it. The “War on Drugs” has been a horrific series of policy choices that have targeted the United States’s most vulnerable populations. After many years, however, people are beginning to fight back: Oregonian voters have taken the first official effort in the United States to decriminalize the possession of hard drugs, including heroin and cocaine.
Oregon’s most recent step forward is just one example of the public’s changing attitude towards drugs. Of the fifteen states that have legalized marijuana, thirteen did so through ballot initiative measures, with only two coming from state legislation. Thus, we can see that these changes were nearly always brought about by the people.
Voters are now recognizing that the criminalization of drugs is an ineffective and inhumane method of managing drug problems such as the ongoing opioid epidemic. The epidemic is a serious issue—it claims over a hundred lives each day and has claimed half a million since the turn of the century. In 2016 alone, an estimated 64,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses (more than the combined death tolls for Americans in the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq Wars).
To understand the solution to the opioid epidemic, it is important to understand the difference between legalization and decriminalization. Legalization is the process of removing all legal prohibitions against the drug; decriminalization of a drug means it would remain illegal, but the legal system would not prosecute a person for possession under a specified amount. This is set to separate drug users and drug dealers, as dealing would still be prosecuted. This means that drug problems can be dealt with as health issues instead of criminal ones.
This rehabilitative approach to drugs, and justice in general, has created massive improvements in other societies. For example, Portugal had an extreme drug problem in the decades leading up to the turn of the century, with an estimated 1% of the population being addicted to heroin in the 1990s. Initially, the Portuguese government tried a similar ‘tough-on-drugs’ strategy to quell the problem, but by the late 1990s, roughly half of the Portuguese prison population consisted of those with drug addiction problems.
In 2001, Portugal finally took the step to decriminalize all hard drugs and recognized the need to address the issue as a health problem, pushing for treatment instead of punishment. As of 2012, Portugal's drug death toll sat at 3 per million in comparison to the EU average of 17.3 per million. Additionally, according to a report by the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit created with the goal of ending America’s own “War on Drugs,” the percentage of people in prison in Portugal for drug law violations has been cut almost in half, from 44% in 1999 to 24% in 2013. Between 1998 and 2011, the number of people in drug treatment in Portugal increased by over 60%; nearly three-quarters of them received opioid-substitution therapy.
This tried and true strategy to combat drug addiction through decriminalization has been adopted by many other countries, including the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland. If used in the United States, it could address key issues such as racial inequality in addition to the opioid epidemic. According to the DPA: “Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are black or Latino. Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for black people as for white people charged with the same offense. Among people who received a mandatory minimum sentence in 2011, 38% were Latino and 31% were black.”
Through the decriminalization and legalization of various drugs, we can create a multi-faceted approach to drug abuse, social stigma, and racial inequality. Of course, there is still much work to do in pursuit of solving these issues, and decriminalization of drugs will not be the end of them. However, if these measures are indicative of a new era of drug policy, the future looks more encouraging. It’s time for America to understand that the misnomered “War on Drugs” has only served as an archaic, outdated method of friendly fire trained on vulnerable Americans over decades. Oregonians have taken a monumental first step, and it’s time we all follow suit.