- Aug 31, 2016
- Frostbite Falls, MN
What would happen if the US decriminalized drug possession?*
by Jag Davies | Playboy | Dec 17 2019
The drug policies in this country are preposterous. As long as people who use drugs are treated like criminals, mass criminalization and mass overdose deaths will remain two of the greatest ongoing tragedies in the United States.
Accidental drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, exceeding fatalities from gun violence, car accidents, homicide and HIV/AIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, more than 68,000 deadly drug overdoses occurred in the United States in 2018 alone.
At the same time, U.S. law enforcement makes an arrest for drug possession every 25 seconds, adding up to well over 1 million arrests a year. It’s the single most common reason for arrest in the country. These arrests do nothing to reduce the use of drugs; in fact, criminalization amplifies safety risks by pushing people who use drugs away from public health services.
What if I told you that decriminalization of all drugs (yes, all drugs) could put an end to that? Under decriminalization, people who are caught using or possessing a small amount of drugs or are found with drug paraphernalia would no longer face criminal penalties, meaning any form of criminal punishment (including arrest, jail and imprisonment) would be abolished.
This idea—to cease to treat drug possession as an unlawful offense—isn’t as outlandish as it may seem. According to a poll conducted by the Cato Institute, 55 percent of Americans support decriminalization. The leading governmental, medical, public health and civil rights groups—including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Global Commission on Drug Policy, plus celebrity activists such as Richard Branson—have also supported decriminalization, arguing that drug-policy reformation would revolutionize how the U.S. handles use and addiction.
Decriminalization has proven to be transformative in other nations across the world. Numerous countries, including the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Spain and, most notably, Portugal, have had remarkable success with it.
The Portuguese regime, established by António Salazar in 1932, closed the country off from the rest of the world for 40 years. When the suppressive rule abruptly ended in 1974, in came the drugs the country had barely experienced before. By the 1990s, one in 100 people in Portugal was addicted to heroin, and the country’s rate of HIV infection had hit the highest in the European Union. But since 2001, when Portugal became the first country to decriminalize all drugs, the number of people voluntarily entering treatment has increased significantly as rates of addiction and adolescent drug use have fallen. From 2000 to 2015, HIV infections in Portugal plummeted from 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million.
Given decriminalization’s successful track record, senior levels of government are attempting to pave the way for it in an array of countries, including Canada, Ghana, Ireland, Malaysia, Mexico, Norway and Scotland. Still, only a handful of U.S. policy makers have embraced the idea.
Some progress has been made in reforming the war on drugs in the United States—but mostly by cities and states, not by the federal government. Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah have reduced drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. Dozens of cities around the country have instituted pre-arrest diversion programs, such as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. “911 Good Samaritan” laws, some of which limit criminalization at the scene of an overdose for witnesses who call for emergency medical assistance, have been adopted in all 50 states.
Progress has also been made toward cannabis legalization in all 50 states, giving hope that once-unthinkable drug reforms can happen with positive results. Since Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, D.C., California, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Michigan, Illinois and Vermont approved measures to legalize cannabis, states have saved millions and are allocating the dollars earned from cannabis taxes to civil sectors. In Colorado, for instance, $225 million in tax revenue was distributed to the Colorado Department of Education from 2015 to 2018. A study published in the journal Economic Inquiry shows compelling evidence that opioid-overdose deaths in states that have legalized recreational cannabis drop by 20 to 35 percent.
"The criminalization that targets lower-income communities would slowly wither, affording those affected an opportunity to support themselves and their families."
The national debate around cannabis has evolved from whether the remaining states should legalize it to how they should legalize it. But even though a 2018 Rasmussen Reports survey found that only nine percent of likely U.S. voters deem the war on drugs a success—and despite positive case studies ranging from Portugal’s decriminalization to cannabis legalization stateside—the Trump administration is making moves to ramp up the drug war. This marks a shift away from modest Obama-era reforms that slowed the growth of mass incarceration. Trump and his ilk have weaponized the overdose crisis in an attempt to demonize immigrants and people of color—even calling for the death penalty for people who sell drugs.
U.S. voters may soon decide on drug decriminalization for the first time: In September 2019, activists in Oregon filed Petition 2020-044, which will likely come to a vote in November 2020. If passed, it will decriminalize simple possession and refer offenders to a range of voluntary services such as evidence-based treatment, harm-reduction programs and housing services. The savings on law enforcement—as well as the revenue from cannabis taxes—would fund these programs.
Some Democratic presidential candidates, such as Bernie Sanders, include far-reaching drug-policy reforms in their platforms. “We are going to end the international embarrassment of having more people in jail than any other country on earth. Instead of spending $80 billion a year on jails and incarceration, we are going to invest in jobs and education for our young people,” Sanders promises on his campaign website. Yet as of press time no 2020 presidential candidate has made a full-throated endorsement of ending arrests for drug possession and implementing Portugal-style decriminalization.
So what would the United States look like if we stopped treating drug users as criminals? Mass incarceration and mass criminalization—which are major drivers of economic inequality, health disparities and systemic racism—would decrease significantly. The criminalization that targets lower-income communities would slowly wither, affording those affected an opportunity to support themselves and their families.
We would no longer fear years like 2018, when law enforcement arrested about 1.43 million people for possessing small amounts of drugs for personal use. The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch could work on releasing the 137,000 people they estimate are behind bars in U.S. prisons and jails on any given day for drug possession—many of them being held pre-trial because they can’t afford to post bail. Thousands more currently locked up for failing drug tests as a condition of probation or parole could start working toward their freedom.
Black people, who represent 13 percent of the U.S. population and use drugs at similar rates as other groups, would no longer account for 29 percent of people arrested for drug-law violations and 33 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons for drug possession. Law enforcement would be able to divert resources to serious public safety concerns—such as the 67 percent of reported rapes that went uncleared in 2018 and the thousands of rape kits that went unprocessed.
If mass drug-possession arrests stop in the U.S., the thousands of people currently deported every year for possessing any amount of drugs would no longer fear losing their homes. Permanent residents—many of whom have been in the U.S. for decades and have jobs and families—would no longer live with the anxiety caused by the automatic detention and deportation, often without the possibility of return, for being caught with any amount of any drug.
One may hypothesize that fewer drug-possession arrests would mean more crime on the streets, but the Pew Charitable Trusts reported in 2017 that there is “no relationship between drug imprisonment and drug problems,” because under decriminalization, people would still be arrested for committing crimes under the influence of drugs. Decriminalization would only mean that police could no longer waste taxpayer dollars arresting people for possession.
Decriminalization also makes it easier to ramp up health and harm-reduction services that are known to drastically reduce addiction, overdose deaths and new hepatitis C and HIV infections. Evidence-based drug treatment could more easily be offered to anyone who wants it. For those who continue to use drugs, services to reduce potential harm—such as screening unregulated drugs for adulterants, community-based naloxone distribution, syringe-access programs, supervised consumption sites and other long-proven approaches—could also be made more widely available.
All the pieces are in place for drug decriminalization to take effect in the U.S. Now we just have to demand that our leaders act. To truly end the war on drugs and avoid new public health crises, we need to accept that criminalizing possession offers no solutions or hope for real cultural transformation.