Oregon became the first state in the United States to decriminalize the possession of all drugs on Nov. 3, 2020.
Measure 110, a ballot initiative funded by the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group backed in part by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, passed with more than 58% of the vote. Possessing heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs for personal use is no longer a criminal offense in Oregon.
Those drugs are still against the law, as is selling them. But possession is now a civil – not criminal – violation that may result in a fine or court-ordered therapy, not jail. Marijuana, which Oregon legalized in 2014, remains fully legal.
Oregon’s move is radical for the United States, but several European countries have decriminalized drugs to some extent. There are three main arguments for this major drug policy reform.
1. Drug prohibition has failed
In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drugs to be “public enemy number one” and launched a “war on drugs” that continues today.
The ostensible rationale for harshly punishing drug users is to deter drug use. But decades of research – including our own on marijuana and drugs generally – has found the deterrent effect of strict criminal punishment to be small, if it exists at all. This is especially true among young people, who are the majority of drug users.
This is partly due to the nature of addiction, and also because there are simply limits to how much punishment can deter crime. As a result, the U.S. has both the world’s highest incarceration rate and among the highest rates of illegal drug use. Roughly 1 in 5 incarcerated people in the United States is in for a drug offense.
Criminologists find that other consequences of problematic drug use – such as harm to health, reduced quality of life and strained personal relationships – are more effective deterrents than criminal sanctions.
Because criminalizing drugs does not really prevent drug use, decriminalizing does not really increase it. Portugal, which decriminalized the personal possession of all drugs in 2001 in response to high illicit drug use, has much lower rates of drug use than the European average. Use of cocaine among young adults age 15 to 34, for example, is 0.3% in Portugal, compared to 2.1% across the EU. Amphetamine and MDMA consumption is likewise lower in Portugal.
Published: February 01, 2021
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News