One of the interesting results of the election that has been somewhat overlooked is that the state of Oregon became the first in the US to decriminalize all drug possession, with 58% voting in favor of the measure. Public drug use is still illegal, however.
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.
This article discusses the different levels of decriminalization of narcotics that have been taken around the world.
The case for decriminalization rests on three arguments: #1. Drug prohibition has failed. #2. Decriminalization puts money to better use. #3. The drug war targets people of color.
[T] he 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.
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.
Illegal drug use is roughly comparable across race in the U.S. But people of color are significantly more likely to be searched, arrested and imprisoned for a drug-related offense. Drug crimes can incur long prison sentences.
Discretion in drug enforcement and sentencing means prohibition is among the leading causes of incarceration of people of color in the United States – an injustice many Americans on both sides of the aisle increasingly recognize.
Freed up from policing drug use, departments may redirect their resources toward crime prevention and solving violent crimes like homicide and robbery, which are time-consuming to investigate. That could help restore some trust between law enforcement and Oregon’s communities of color.
In Portugal, full decriminalization has proven more humane and effective than criminalization. Because drug users don’t worry about facing criminal charges, those who need help are more likely to seek it – and get it.
Portugal’s overdose death rate is five times lower than the EU average – which is itself far lower than the United States’. HIV infection rates among injection drug users also dropped massively since 2001.
People worry that decriminalization of drugs may cause young people to try them but there seems to be little evidence of it. One seemingly paradoxical result is that it is harder for minors to get hold of regulated marijuana when they are legal than when they are illegal. Legalizing drugs gets rid of the pushers on the street corners. It then becomes like young people purchasing alcohol, they have to go to a store and get carded or get someone to buy it for them.