Can drug decriminalization be socially sustainable?

By Silia Tsigka, GLOBUS Correspondent

In November 2020, the possession of hard drugs, like heroin and cocaine, as well as the medicinal use of hallucinogens, like mushrooms, was decriminalized in Oregon. Oregon became the first US state to adopt this policy through a democratic vote and, soon after, other states moved towards a looser drug policy starting with recreational marijuana legalization, which is still largely prohibited in the US federation as a whole. 

Decriminalization vs Legalization

But what is the difference between decriminalization and legalization? The Alcohol and Drug Foundation defines drug decriminalization as the process where drugs are still technically illegal, however there are no criminal sanctions for possessing them. Nevertheless, penalties still apply to those who produce and distribute drugs. The first country at a global scale to decriminalize all drugs was Portugal in 2001. Although drug dealers and producers still face imprisonment, individuals having less than a 10-day amount of any drug have to deal with civic implications rather than criminal ones. This involves going to local commissions, surrounded by doctors, lawyers, and other experts whose roles are to inform drug users about rehabilitation and treatment prospects as well as the medical resources available to them. There are still debates about the nature of such legislation, however, some statistics show that it has overall proven to be working. According to a 2016 report, between 2001 (the year the law was implemented) and 2012, the amount of people who had previously used a hard drug and no longer do, dropped from around 45% to under 30%. Additionally, deaths directly associated to drug use have significantly reduced from 80 in 2001, to 16 in 2012

In contrast, legalization refers to the removal of all legal penalties from the possession or use of drugs, and the implementation of certain regulations and monitoring tools on drug production and distribution. Although no country has legalized all drugs, many have legalized some of them with the most famous one being alcohol. And yes, alcohol is a drug, and according to a study conducted in 2010, in the UK, it is the most dangerous one too. Scoring 72 out of 100 in terms of overall harmfulness, alcohol came first, followed by heroine (which scored 55) and crack cocaine (which scored 54). Yet there are certain drugs known for their numerous benefits, like marijuana, which have not been universally accepted. From the 46 countries worldwide that have legalized marijuana, only 2 have legalized it for recreational purposes, whereas the other 44 have legalized it only for medical uses. Similarly, in the US, out of the 36 states that have legalized medicinal cannabis, only 15 allow its recreational use

When and why did the War on Drugs start? 

Before delving into the positive and negative aspects to drug decriminalization, it is important to know why drugs were criminalized in the first place. Drugs that are currently illegal were not always so. At the end of the 19th century, drugs were freely available at a global scale. In the US, one could purchase products in pharmacies or retail stores, deriving from the main ingredients of heroin, cocaine, and other opiates. One example was Coca Cola, which was made from the same plant as powder cocaine. Marijuana was also legal, and people addicted to drugs were not considered criminals but rather in need of medical care.

However, all of this changed, when Harry Anslinger was appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a rather insignificant and underfunded US governmental department. In 1914, the US Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act which regulated and taxed the production, trade, and distribution of opiates and cocaine. Many scholars suggest that the Act was born from racist ideologies: supporters of the Act believed that the influence of cocaine could cause revolutionary thinking, which would lead to black men gaining equal status in society. This fear of a cocaine-fueled social revolution was also the main reason why police officers in the Southern US increased the caliber in their guns. Similar racist notions were held regarding Chinese minorities with opium: white fearmongers proclaimed that Chinese men used opioids to take advantage of young American girls

Even though the Harrison Act was not an effective drug prohibition measure, the taxation it brought served the government’s aims well as increased both governmental revenue and further segregated black and Chinese communities by financially burdening them. Anslinger was not responsible for the racist Act but partially benefitted from it in terms of his department’s funding. However, the number of people who consumed opiates still constituted a minority, and Anslinger was hungry for more. Therefore, in the 1930s, he embarked on his anti-marijuana campaign by targeting and marginalizing non-white American communities. For example, Anslinger touted that smoking marijuana had led the Mexican population to become “sex-mad degenerates”. In 1937, the Marijuana Stamp Actprohibited the use of marijuana, and in the 1960s -1970s there was an overall drug criminalization driven by the Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration. Therefore, it seems like the main cause of drug criminalization has been racism, discrimination, and war propaganda. This suggests that decriminalization may support greater ethnic and racial inclusivity. But what could the other arguments be? And what about the potential counterarguments?

(For more information regarding the history of the War on Drugs, see Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari)

Pros and Cons to Drug Decriminalization

One of the benefits of the legalization of some drugs and the decriminalization of others is the active role of the state in the drug market. By taking over the production, distribution. and regulation of drugs, the state can use the revenues in a positive manner. With Oregon legalizing marijuana in 2014, it was suggested that part of the tax from its sale could be used to support treatment centers and other facilities for individuals with harmful addictions. Furthermore, if the state becomes the main drug provider, the underground market, along with criminal gangs and drug lords who profit from the illegal drug trade, will be weakened and essentially put out of business.  

Besides the mere access to drugs, state-regulated drug provision can also effectively control the quality of drugs. Not only will those drugs be pure and not mixed with harmful secondary substances, but for the ones being injected, clean needles and syringes will be also provided. This is particularly important for diseases spread through blood, that are associated with drug use. In Portugal, since the 2001 law, the number of new AIDS cases decreased from 626 in 2000 to 74 in 2013. So, if the question of drug quality and hygiene becomes sorted, then their quantity will also be regulated. In 2018, in the US alone, 68,000 overdose-induced deaths were documented. This number could significantly drop with the setting up of supervised consumption centers, to keep drug abuse and overdoses in check. An example of how this has worked in the past is the safe injection site in Vancouver, Canada, set up in 2003, which has been estimated to treat almost 1500 overdose cases annually, with zero deaths

More importantly, drug decriminalization will bring about the destigmatization of addiction. In a 2018 article, CNN wrote that there are “functioning heroin addicts – people who hold down jobs, pay the bills and fool their families” and for some “addiction is genetic; they’re wired this way”. These people might need physical and mental help, regardless of whether they show it or not, and punishing them as criminals is definitely not the right course of action. Seeking treatment should be normalized as long as individuals with drug issues seek it voluntarily. In 2014, the World Health Organization stated that “countries should ban compulsory treatment for people who use and/or inject drugs”. Many countries’ government figures have also stressed this, including the Greek political party, Diem25, general secretary Yanis Varoufakis, who discussed decriminalizing drugs in Greece as a part of his political agenda. He specifically stated that public centers for providing drugs should be made available, however with the primary role of drug distribution rather than drug addiction treatment, unless drug users actively sought this kind of treatment. This should help make treatment less of a taboo and an act that drug users would not be ashamed of or feel pressured to go through. 

Lastly, the legal regulation of some drugs and the decriminalization of others could have positive social implications for racial and ethnic groups who have been discriminated against, and targeted by, drug prohibition within countries like the US. However, this also applies for the effects of countries’ harsh drug policies on other countries. Since 2006, 200,000 people have died in Mexico as a result of the US war on drugs, which has created regional instability and huge refugee waves from Mexico to other places, in an attempt to flee this war, only for these refugees to be discriminated as “traffickers” and “criminals”.  

Despite the positive aspects to such policies there are still quite a few concerns regarding the full decriminalization of drugs, with the most prominent of them being that drugs will be readily available to individuals that have not had a previous experience with substances and will be tempted to try them. Nevertheless, a study in Portugal showed that although there was an increase in drug experimentation after the 2001 law, this trend did not lead to regular use, suggesting that a transparent drug use process, rather than a secretive or rebellious one, is not likely to have long-term implications on the individual. 

Another issue regards the question of simply shifting drug users from the justice system to the healthcare system, which might not be fit to accept them. What would be the case in countries with heavily underfunded public healthcare? Maybe the governmental revenues from selling legal drugs could help cover expenses, but to what extent? And also, what happens when it comes to crime? Even if drug dealing is penalized, it will still not be fully eradicated. Who guarantees that gangs or dealers will not take advantage of countries that have decriminalized drugs as safer environments to sustain their “businesses”?

There are many questions and many more things to consider regarding drug decriminalization, but if it worked in Portugal, why disregard its potential positive effects in other countries? The only way to find out is to try it… 

Header Image by Christina Victoria Craft via Unsplash

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