Time To Decriminalize Drugs In America

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Addiction is a complex disease. It is not, however, a crime and should not be dealt with by the country’s judicial system. Decriminalization is a bold proposition. Many say it cannot succeed, even with countries like Portugal proving otherwise. In truth, though, America’s drug policy is currently a dismal failure.

  • Treating addiction as a crime is needlessly destroying lives.
  • Unfortunately, this pragmatic approach to the problem of drug addiction as a mental health issue rather than a crime is ignored by the U.S. government.


For more than 50 years, the United States’ response to illicit drugs has decimated communities, ruined lives and represents an antiquated, destructive approach to public health. Even federal agencies, like the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), classify drug addiction as a “complex disease of the brain.” 

  • There is a better alternative, decriminalize the use and possession of drugs. 

“Drug decriminalization is a critical next step toward achieving a rational drug policy that puts science and public health before punishment and incarceration,” reports the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for drug regulation grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.

Despite the fact that the government knows addiction is a disease, not a crime, the U.S. judicial system continues to grind people down with harsh prison sentences and impossible probation or parole standards. These are policies that affect everyone, but especially African Americans and other communities of color.


The NAACP, a civil rights organization formed to advance justice for African Americans, lays out some of the facts surrounding racial disparities in drug arrests and incarcerations, such as the following:

  • Drug related charges for African Americans are 6 times higher than whites, despite the fact both races use drugs at similar rates
  • Though African Americans represent about 12.5 percent of people who use illicit drugs, they make up nearly 30 percent of those arrested and 33 percent of those incarcerated for drugs
  • Federal and state spending on prisons and jails far outpaces budgets for public education

Even beyond incarceration, there are tens of thousands of people under correctional supervision – parole, probation, work programs – for drug charges. In many cases, a single violation while under these constraints results in an even harsher sentence than the original drug charge. 

Nationally, there are a handful of prison residential drug abuse programs, but very often, the people who need help the most are not in a facility that offers one.

  • Though there have been a few successes, being locked up in prison is not conducive to achieving a long-lasting, stable recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. 

It should also be noted that the cost of incarcerating a person is far more expensive than providing care at a better equipped, in-patient, residential facility that specializes in addiction treatment and its underlying causes.

In 2016, law enforcement agencies made one drug arrest every 20 seconds amounting to 1.57 million arrests, according to an FBI Report.

  • Even starker, an estimated 80 percent of annual drug arrests are only for possession and do not involve a violent offense. 

As jail and prison populations have needlessly swollen beyond capacity, hundreds of thousands of incarcerated drug offenders haven’t even been convicted of a crime. Separated from their loved ones, often losing their homes and jobs in the process, they are detained while waiting months, sometimes years, for a trial.

Finally, there is the lasting damage that being an ex-felon does to a person’s life even if they come through their addiction and into recovery. In many states, ex-felons are not allowed to vote. They have difficulty finding jobs or renting housing. All of these setbacks make it difficult for those coming out of the penal system to get their lives back to normal.

It is puzzling to consider this when the government’s own National Institute on Drug Abuse, along with the American Medical Association and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (DSM-5), often referred to as the “Bible of psychiatry,” all classify addiction as a chronic, relapsing disease of the brain.

  • Addiction is considered similar to other chronic illnesses, like asthma, diabetes and heart disease. 

 As the New York Times editorial board wrote in a 2018 op-ed, “…ordering a drug addict to abstain from drug use is tantamount to mandating a medical outcome – because addiction is a brain disease, and relapsing is a symptom of it.” 

  • Still, the outdated idea that addiction as a crime continues to prevail in the federal system of criminal justice.

The culture of policing, of militant “law and order” that does more to break families apart than addiction itself, has continued to inflict expensive, ineffective and increasingly severe punishment on people. 

Many powerful people in law enforcement do not want to see that militant culture destroyed with drug decriminalization. Perhaps one reason for this is that keeping drugs illegal provides hundreds of thousands of jobs in law enforcement and corrections institutions.

Several countries across the globe have opted to lessen the penalties for drug possession and use or have outright decriminalized them.

  • Portugal, however, stands out. 

The first country in the European Union to decriminalize all drugs, Portugal, compared to its neighbors, faced the highest rates of drug-related HIV/AIDS cases in 1999. Then, in 2001 Portuguese Legislators eliminated criminal penalties for all drugs and increased access to addiction treatment. 

The outcomes of Portugal’s move to decriminalize drugs speak for themselves:

  • Addiction and substance rates decreased by more than half
  • Providing treatment was found to be less expensive than incarceration
  • Violence from drug trafficking was greatly reduced
  • Fewer incarcerations and arrests freed up courts for other important work
  • The stigma associated was lessened by treating it as a disease, allowing those who have recovered to be much more productive members of society

Several other countries have had success in combating cartel violence or the underground market. By liberalizing their drug policies, countries such as Ecuador, Uruguay and Argentina declared it unconstitutional to prosecute citizens for having drugs. 

Countries like Switzerland, Australia and Canada have embraced harm reduction measures to slow the spread of disease, often offering needle exchanges or medically supervised “injection rooms” to help prevent fatal overdoses. 

Both Norway and Malaysia are on the path to decriminalizing drugs in some fashion as well. 

  • Still, the U.S. continues to lag behind other developed nations. 

In fact, there are already some cities in the U.S. that are implementing similar approaches. In Dallas, Texas, the police and fire department has teamed up with social workers at Parkland Hospital who respond to emergency mental health calls

Many more lives would be saved if those involved in drug-related emergencies did not fear the presence of law enforcement taking them to jail as a result of trying to help someone else or themselves. 

There is a host of other effective measures that decriminalization advocates propose as well, such as:

  • Create on-demand, evidence-based treatment facilities to serve those most affected by drug addiction. This can be paid for by diverting a nominal amount of funds from law enforcement and corrections budgets
  • Develop harm reduction programs that educate users about potential dangers, as well as provide free overdose-reversal kits
  • Eliminate administrative penalties, such as asset forfeiture, excessive fines and removing a parent’s right to care for their children if no harm is being done. These punishments create greater instability and do more damage.

It’s important to note that decriminalizing illicit drugs does not mean all drugs will be legal. There are a number of different approaches to this idea, but the key point is that people should no longer be treated as criminals for drug violations. 

Addressing drug abuse as a public health problem comes with a long list of benefits. Some of these include:

  • Creates an incentive for people to seek help when they need it
  • Reduces the burden on law enforcement
  • Increases the community’s trust in local police, which in turn can lower violent crime like domestic abuse
  • Addresses some of the racial and economic disparities involved in policing drugs
  • Lowers the number of people incarcerated or under correctional supervision and removes a felony record that can follow a person for the rest of their life

Many state and local governments already understand that decriminalizing, regulating or legalizing illicit substances leads to better public health outcomes. 

Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have some form of legalized cannabis. Not only have arrests for possession and use plummeted, states are saving massive amounts of money by not incarcerating people. Furthermore, marijuana regulation creates new streams of tax revenue that can be used to improve public health. Some examples of this include:

  • 40 percent of Oregon’s cannabis tax revenue goes toward education, while another 20 percent is funneled into drug treatment programs
  • Washington State puts 25 percent of its tax revenue into drug treatment programs and another 55 percent into funding basic health plans
  • California and Massachusetts use a portion of marijuana tax revenue to invest in low-income communities most affected by drug incarcerations and arrests
  • Collecting 12 million annually in cannabis taxes, Alaska uses these funds for drug treatment and community residential centers
  • Colorado has put more than 230 million of its tax revenues into new school construction, early literacy programs and behavioral health services

Now, some cities like Denver, Oakland, Santa Cruz, California, and Portland, Oregon, have decriminalized the possession and use of psilocybin “magic” mushrooms. Many other cities and states are considering similar proposals. 

Oregon has taken the most aggressive measures to address mass incarceration for drug related charges. In 2017, the state legislature passed a bill significantly reducing penalties for the possession of drugs, including drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. 

“While we still have much work ahead, [this] represents an important step toward creating a more equitable justice system to better serve all Oregonians,” Governor Kate Brown said in an interview. 

Eliminating federal and state penalties for the possession and use of drugs does not mean that drug abuse goes unaddressed. Decriminalization should, however, take law enforcement out of the picture and add health care workers that would act, for example, as first responders in an overdose-related 911 call. 

Drug decriminalization, along with increased social and societal support – substance abuse as a public health issue, not a crime – is the answer as too many lives are damaged by an outdated nationwide approach to drug policy.


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