The Decriminalization of Drugs

In the year 2001, the small European nation of Portugal enacted policies to begin the process of decriminalization of recreational drugs. In the seventeen years since drug-related crime rates, STDs, and death-by-drugs, have decreased dramatically and many people are asking why the rest of the EU members (not to mention the US) have not hopped on board the decriminalization train. As of 2012, Portugal’s drug death toll sat at 3 per million, in comparison to the EU average of 17.3 per million. After the example Portugal has set for the rest of the world, in their decades-long experiment, haven’t they already won the war on drugs?

Noted, the US is likely to be the last to fully join, considering our current conservative reign, and the acceptance of change is often rejected. Though I’d like to point out how liberal we have recently become towards the acceptance of cannabis. Many states from Maine to Alaska have legalized marijuana, and even more have decriminalized. Add to this the fact that drug overdoses killed 72,000 Americans (a number that is only increasing), due to unsafe, unregulated injection or usage, you’d think Congress would be all over that sh*t. 

Drugs are dangerous, no doubt, to ourselves and to those around us. We have to look at patterns in history when we’re looking to de-escalate these types of crises. Where marijuana was decriminalized and later legalized, it immediately became subject to regulation, with the positive consequence of an increase in quality and safety. Before, if you wanted to get high, there was a possibility of contamination or the drug being laced with a much harder drug. Even further back, with prohibition against alcohol; people were still getting drunk, but it wasn’t safe. Illicit drugs should be regulated by the FDA for safety purposes, but they should be heavily taxed, like alcohol and cigarettes, to keep the sales down.

It’s in our nature to look for an out, a break from reality, if you will. Even monkeys ferment, or at least rot fruit over time to get drunk. The moment you make this illegal, people may push even harder to get their “break”, regardless of what it may take. Not to say any country should ever legalize meth, but the decriminalization of certain drugs may be a big step. Scientists have ranked drugs safest to most dangerous, according to the number of hospital visits, with psilocybin (magic) mushrooms as the safest drug, followed by cannabis. So decriminalizing “safer” drugs might be a good place to start, with the goal of avoiding any possible incidents. And it’s not written in stone, congress can always change their minds if the experiment should fail. Though, with Portugal as our witness, failure is highly unlikely.

Another factor in all of this that we should acknowledge that some people fall into addiction after injury or disease, with their rehabilitation often aided by prescription painkillers/opioids. Say you injure your femur, and your doctor writes you a prescription for Percocet. Several refills later, depending on how long it takes you to heal, and suddenly you’re hooked. The doctor stops writing the prescription but it’s too late. Next thing you know you’re chasing heroin. There needs to be a safer, more regulated way to go about this here in the states. 

In 2003, Insite was founded in Vancouver, BC. The site provides a supervised location for injection drug use, being the first in North America. People can bring in any drug they were going to inject anyway, typically heroin, and the on-site staff will supervise in a safe environment. The clinic does not supply any drugs, it’s merely a facility for medical staff to monitor for signs and symptoms of an overdose and to provide addiction therapy. With hundreds of visits a day and approximately 3.6 million visits since it first opened, the staff have reversed 6,440 overdoses, and there has not been one fatality. 

Though it isn’t decriminalized, the police won’t raid these facilities due to the Controlled Drugs and Substance Act, exempted by the Canadian government. The city councils of Seattle and San Francisco have been discussing opening their own Insite, being the first in the United States, bringing us one step closer.

Besides the pros of keeping overdoses down, drug decriminalization will aid in solving prison overcrowding (which is a huge and separate issue of criminal justice reform that cannot be adequately addressed here). About half of prison inmates are drug dealers, so the impact of freeing these people would be huge. Drug trafficking, in a “free market”, is about fulfilling a demand, and the moral, ethical, and legal terrain of this issue isn't as cut-and-dried as some legislators pretend. The kids that sold a gram of pot to someone shouldn’t be in the same cage with guys that shank people for fun. Like, c’mon. 

Evidently, drug decriminalization is the way to go. Thanks for the example, Portugal.

Written By FULCRUM Contributor Sonya Bernhagen