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What Does the Decriminalization of Drugs Mean?

by Landmark Recovery

March 30, 2021
opioid crisis

What Does the Decriminalization of Drugs Mean?

While some people use legalization and decriminalization interchangeably, there is a crucial difference. Today, we’ll be asking the question, “what is decriminalization of drugs?” and figuring out what this means for drug users and society in general.

Legalization vs Decriminalization

With legalization, both the supply and possession of illegal drugs are legally controlled much like tobacco or alcohol. Even if there are limits in place for age or possession, you won’t be breaking any laws. No country has yet legalized drugs, though.

Decriminalization is not the same thing at all. With the decriminalization of drugs, the substance remains federally illegal. Civil penalties replace criminal convictions, though. Law enforcement won’t prioritize decriminalized substances.

In essence, drug decriminalization means a reduction in legal penalties for possession. The focus of drug decriminalization is on drug users rather than suppliers. Decriminalizing falls in the area between legalization and prohibition.

Measure 110: The Decriminalization of All Drugs in Oregon

On February 1, 2021, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize the possession of small quantities of all drugs.

This stems from a ballot initiative, Measure 110Drug Policy Action spearheaded this measure, and it applies only to new drug crimes. 58% of voters supported this shift in policy.

Further to the decriminalization of drugs in Oregon, residents no longer face arrest or jail time for possessing small quantities of any drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Instead, they can take either:

  • $100 fine
  • Access to addiction treatment

Decriminalization of Drugs: An Alternative to the War on Drugs

The war on drugs launched by Richard Nixon in 1971 has demonstrably failed. The backlash includes:

  • Fueling violence related to the illegal drug market
  • Choking the prison system with millions of drug offenders
  • Failing to prevent the worst overdose crisis in US history with the opioid epidemic

Even if politicians remain cautious, the reforms in Oregon show the public can take action.

Oregon takes the opposite line to the current punitive approach. By diverting money from marijuana sales tax in state, $100 million a year will go toward drug treatment programs. This is roughly quadruple the amount the state currently spends. Federal data suggests only 1 in 10 people with drug addiction pursue treatment. Any improvement in this area will be welcome.

In addition to enhanced access to treatment for those who most need it, the Oregon approach has another obvious advantage. There will be significantly fewer drug-related arrests.

Is decriminalizing drugs a good thing, though?

How Decriminalization of Drugs Influences Addiction Rates

Supporters of drug decriminalization claim that offering drug treatment instead of jail time addresses the root cause of the drug problem.

Jail time can even make things worse in some cases. It can inflame mental health issues leading to more chance of substance abuse upon release.

Opponents of decriminalization fear that addiction rates will rise. Is this borne out by the data, though?

Well, we don’t know yet. Portugal is an interesting model, and there are now fewer rather than more drug users. However, drug policy change was not the only factor at play in Portugal. There was also a shift in public opinion and several government changes.

Here in the US, we could look to Colorado as an example. Having legalized marijuana in 2014, by 2018, marijuana use was 85% above the national average. Fatal accidents and hospital visits related to marijuana also increased.

It’s easy to understand concerns about the decriminalization of drugs. After all, prohibition was a documented failure. What is clear, though, is that targeting drug users and punishing them criminally does nothing to stem the tide of drugs. With encouraging results in Portugal, and a growing body of evidence to draw upon in the United States, we can only hope that decriminalization will succeed where the war on drugs has so roundly failed.

What Comes Next

Punishing drug users criminally is intended to deter drug use. While the intention might be honorable, research shows this is ineffective. The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate, and among the highest rates of drug abuse.

Since drug criminalization doesn’t really prevent drug use, decriminalizing drugs doesn’t increase it. Portugal decriminalized personal possession of all drugs in 2001. This was a response to high illicit drug use. Today, Portugal has lower rates than the average in Europe.

It remains to be seen how things will unfold in Oregon. In the meantime, if you or a loved one needs treatment for addiction to drink or drugs, reach out to our friendly team. Here at Landmark Recovery, we want to help a million people over the coming decade. Call our admission team today at 888-448-0302.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.