Decriminalize Drugs in America


For more than 50 years, the United States’ response to illicit drugs has decimated communities, ruined countless lives, and represents an antiquated, destructive approach to public health.

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.

Though 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.

“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.

According to, here are some of the results of the War On Drugs:

  • Amount spent annually in the U.S. on the war on drugs: $47+ billion.
  • Arrests in 2018 in the U.S. for drug law violations: 1,654,282
  • Drug arrests that were for possession only: 1,429,299
  • People arrested for a marijuana law violation in 2018: 663,367
  • Those charged with marijuana law violations who were arrested for possession only: 608,775
  • Percentage of people arrested in 2017 for drug law violations which are Black: 27% (despite making up just 13.4% of the U.S. population)
  • Citizens in the U.S. incarcerated in 2016: 2.3 million – the highest incarceration rate in the world.
  • People in the U.S. incarcerated for a drug law violation in 2016: 450,000
  • Adults in the U.S. who died from an accidental drug overdose in 2018: almost 68,000

Those states that allow the medical use of marijuana: 35 and the District of Columbia

States that have legalized marijuana: 15+ District of Columbia (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, and Washington State)

U.S. states that have decriminalized or removed the threat of jail time for possession of all drugs for personal use: 1 (Oregon)

The number of states that have decriminalized or removed the threat of jail time for simple possession of small amounts of marijuana is 26 and the District of Columbia.

  • Adults killed in Mexico’s drug war since 2006: 150,000
  • People died in the Philippines drug war since 2016: up to 20,000

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that syringe access programs lower HIV incidence among people who inject drugs by 50%

Annual budgetary gains that could be generated by legalization of all drugs: $106.7 billion ($19 billion in state and local tax revenue, $39 billion in federal tax revenue, plus saving $47 billion on prohibition enforcement)

There is a better way to deal with drug abuse, namely decriminalizing drugs’ use and possession.

On November 3rd, 2020, Oregon did what no other state has dared to do. They voted overwhelmingly to start treating drug abuse and addiction as a disease. One state is a small step towards stopping the war on drugs, which Prohibition did to quit alcohol.

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

  • Treating addiction as a crime is needlessly destroying lives.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government does not support this approach to drug addiction as a mental health issue rather than a crime.

Like the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), even federal agencies classify drug addiction as a “complex disease of the brain.”

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:

Drug-related charges for African Americans are six times higher than whites, despite both races using 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.

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

Federal and state spending on prisons and jails far outpaces budgets for public education.

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

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

Incarcerating a person is far more expensive than providing care at a better equipped, inpatient, residential facility.

Jail and prison populations have needlessly swollen beyond capacity. 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, 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. These setbacks make it difficult for those coming out of the penal system to get their lives back to normal.

The government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse and the American Medical Association, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (DSM-5) 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 the addiction itself, has continued to inflict expensive, ineffective, and increasingly severe punishment on people.

Many influential 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 worldwide have opted to lessen drug possession penalties 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 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.
  • Reduce drug trafficking-related violence.
  • Fewer detentions and arrests freed up courts for other important work.

They lower the associated stigma by treating it as a disease, allowing those who have recovered from being much more productive society members.

Several other countries have had success in combating cartel violence or the underground market. For example, 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 disease spread. By 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.

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

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

Create on-demand, evidence-based treatment facilities to serve those most affected by drug addiction.

  • 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 parents’ right to care for their children. These punishments create greater instability and do more damage.

It’s important to note that decriminalizing illicit drugs does not mean all illegal drugs will be legal. There are several different approaches to this idea. The critical point is that people are no longer criminals for drug violations.

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

It creates an incentive for people to seek help when they need it.

Will reduce the burden on law enforcement.

Increases the community’s trust in local police, which can lower violent crime like domestic abuse.

Decreasing the number of people incarcerated or under correctional supervision and removes a felony record.

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, but some states are also saving massive amounts of money by not incarcerating people. Furthermore, marijuana regulation creates new streams of tax revenue:

Forty percent of Oregon’s cannabis tax revenue goes toward education, while another 20 percent for drug treatment programs.

Washington State puts 25 percent of its tax revenue into drug treatment programs and 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.

Denver, Portland, Oakland, Santa Cruz 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 heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

“While we still have much work ahead, this represents an important step toward creating a more equitable justice system to serve all Oregonians better,” 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 as first responders in an overdose-related 911 call.

America’s outdated drug policies are destroying far too many lives.

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