Earlier this month, the state of Oregon made headlines for officially becoming the first U.S. state to decriminalize hard drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. Measure 110 is the new ballot, and it effectively changes how Oregonís justice system treats individuals found with drugs. Note that only relatively small amounts of drugs are decriminalized. A person found with more than 1 gram of heroin, 2 grams of cocaine or methamphetamine, and 40 doses of LSD or oxycodone, for example, may still be subject to criminal charges.
Criminal penalties for personal-use amounts, on the other hand, will be replaced with a $100 fine or the option to attend treatment at a new Addiction Recovery Center. These rehab-style centers are required to provide services like 24/7 medical (or other) treatment, health assessments, case management, and peer support. Treatment is funded through government grants obtained by millions in tax revenue from Oregonís legalized and regulated marijuana industry.
Itís a bold move on Oregonís part, but nationwide trends appear to be moving in the direction of drug decriminalization more and more. For instance, marijuana is now legal in states such as Montana , South Dakota, Arizona, California, and New Jersey, among others, while states like Mississippi and South Dakota have legalized medical cannabis.
While the concept may strike some as radical, the measure is geared toward saving lives, reducing racial and ethnic disparities in convictions and arrests, and cleaning up the prison system. It also makes drug addiction a public health matter as opposed to something that users have to go to trial and face possible jail time over. Not only does a new measure encourage drug addicts to enter into treatment, but it will hopefully prevent them from becoming burdened with criminal records that make it difficult to find housing and jobs.
Oregon may be breaking new ground in the U.S., but several countries across the world already have witnessed the benefits of less harsh drug penalties. Countries like the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic have had positive experiences by decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of hard drugs. Portugal is another country worth highlighting for its 2001 decision to decriminalize the recreational use of hard drugs. The decision led to an overall decrease in drug-related deaths and a 20% increase in the number of people treated for drug addiction from 2001-2008 where it has since stabilized.
Portugalís model is one thatís often used as an example because itís been quite successful. Drug abuse and drug-related crimes have diminished quite significantly as a result. Heroin, for example, was rampant throughout the country in the Ď90s. Portuguese citizens from all walks of life, including students, bankers, and socialites, were hooked on the drug while Portugal had the highest HIV infection rate in the entire EU. By the late Ď90s, somewhere in the neighborhood of half the Portuguese prison population consisted of people who were arrested for drug-related offenses. This meant that the inmate population was largely addicted to drugs and tax dollars were being spent to keep them in the prison system.
Things remain positive overall in Portugal as a result of their decision to decriminalize recreational drug use. Psychological support has been made available to individuals found with drugs, and no distinction is made between hard and soft drugs. It all depends on whether the personís relationship to the drugs is healthy or not. Drug dealers still go to prison under Portugalís law, but anyone caught with less than a ten-day supply is sent to a local commission with a lawyer, doctor, or social worker present. There, they learn about available medical options and treatment such as rehab and things like twelve-step recovery programs.
The drug-induced death rate is now five times lower in Portugal than the EU average and at around 2% of the total in the U.S. The countryís rate of HIV infection dropped from 104.2 new cases per million in 2000 down to 4.2 new cases per million in 2015, and the percentage of people in prison for drug law violations in Portugal has decreased significantly as well.
According to the CDC, 67,367 drug overdose-related deaths occurred in the U.S. in 2018 which is more than the combined death tolls for the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq Wars. While the numbers donít mean much without a broad comparison, theyíre arguably quite appalling in relation to those of Portugal and other nations without such strict drug penalties. Additionally, U.S. prisons are flooded with addicts who donít have access to treatment and will ultimately have a very hard time finding work if and when theyíre released due to criminal records.
A particularly disconcerting fact is that the U.S. spends roughly $80 million US dollars to keep people behind bars, and drug-related offenses make up a big part of the federal prison system. In fact, 1/5th of those incarcerated are locked up for drugs which means that somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million US taxpayer dollars go toward keeping drug users behind bars.
If states like Oregon respond as well as Portugal to the decriminalization model, then wouldnít it make sense for the rest of the country to follow suit? Of course, there are other factors at play here, including the amount of drugs allowed for individuals not to be penalized and the treatment options available. What works in Portugal may or may not work everywhere else, but itís certainly worth examining, and it will be interesting to see how Oregonians fare once the new measure goes into effect next year.
The War on Drugs is a long and arduous one, no doubt, but progressive thinking is already resulting in some real change, and hopefully for the better. If all goes well in Oregon, perhaps weíll start to see less harsh penalties for drug offenses across the country. More importantly, perhaps more addicted individuals will get the help they need through treatment and drug rehab while on the road to recovery.