On November 3, the state of Oregon voted on an important decision: in addition to voting for Joe Biden, the state elected to decriminalize all drugs and contribute funding to more addiction recovery centers. This is a large departure from the typical American attitude toward substance abuse, and there are many benefits to this radical policy. Ideally, the decriminalization of drugs in Oregon will lead to reduced incarceration rates and a greater emphasis on addiction recovery. While the policy might seem ridiculous to an ordinary American, it will ultimately improve society.
In order to understand why the decriminalization of drugs is a good thing, one must understand the history of drug policy. Beginning with Richard Nixon, the American government began a policy known as the War on Drugs. In 1970, Nixon passed the Controlled Substances Act into law, which criminalized the use and possession of a litany of substances. On the surface, the policy sought to prevent addiction by criminalizing the use of certain substances. However, the War on Drugs did little to affect substance abuse in the United States. In fact, it contributed to an increase in the number of overdose deaths because most incarcerated individuals did not receive addiction recovery treatment. Additionally, incarceration rates in the United States skyrocketed as a result of possession charges. Today, the US boasts the highest incarceration rate of any country. Absurdly, 52% of all drugs busts were marijuana related. Millions of Americans have been locked up for possessing a drug that is legal in some states.
This is not even mentioning the more sinister motives behind the War on Drugs. In 1994, Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, claimed that the primary goal of the policy was to attack their political enemies. He’s quoted as saying, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” The legacy of racism in the War on Drugs’ inception still reverberates into today. Black men are far more likely to be imprisoned for possession of drugs despite the use of drugs being consistent across racial lines. There remains a massive racial disparity in the number of incarcerated individuals in the US, and the War on Drugs plays in an integral role in this.
In spite of this, you may still be wary of decriminalizing all drugs. After all, drugs kill thousands of people, so why shouldn’t we make them illegal? The unfortunate truth is that criminalization does not deter people from doing drugs. The best thing that our country can do to decrease drug use is to invest in drug education and addiction recovery programs. Portugal presents an excellent example of how this could work. In 2001, 1% of Portugal’s population was addicted to heroin, and the nation had the highest rate of HIV in Europe. As a result, the country took a radical step and became the first country in the world to decriminalize all drugs. They shifted their focus to health care and addiction recovery. While it isn’t a perfect system, the number of overdoses and cases of HIV dropped dramatically. If the United States truly wants to overcome drug addiction, it should follow in Portugal’s example.
Oregon’s new policy might seem radical or shocking at first, but it is the best way forward. Drug addiction should be treated as a public health crisis, not as a criminal epidemic. As long as addiction is viewed as a problem of criminality, millions will continue to be imprisoned for very little reason and the underlying problem will never be solved.