Decriminalization: A Step Toward Easing Our Nation’s Drug Epidemic


Clare Daudelin

Drug decriminalization would foster an environment in which rehabilitative resources are accessible, viable, and encouraged, replacing a system plagued with corruption and degradation.

Maya Raphael, Assistant Editor

Every 23 seconds in America, someone is arrested for drug possession. 

Shortly after this, a narrative is forced upon them — one that we have been conditioned to take as the truth. One that dehumanizes drug users. One that subordinates addicted individuals. One that unjustly mass incarcerates. 

Drug criminalization is not improving America’s imperative drug epidemic. It has taken a disastrous toll on society — undermining public health, harming addicted individuals, and fabricating a narrative that portrays addiction as a crime.

Through the neurobiology of addiction, the inadequacy of prison rehabilitation, and mere ethics, one thing becomes clear: it’s time for a new approach. Federal drug decriminalization will rewrite the narrative to allow rehabilitation to prevail over punishment; it encourages addicted individuals to seek help from the state without risk of penalization.

Making the problem abundantly clear — and reckoning with its severity — is the first step toward increasing public health. 

Almost 850,000 Americans have died from a drug overdose since 1999. Considering its deadliness, it is clear that combating drug use is an urgent matter.

The demand for a viable solution is blatantly clear, and any logical government would attempt to combat the epidemic. However, success is dependent upon a premeditated, thoughtful strategy that values human dignity over efficiency; past endeavors have only concentrated attention on the latter, failing to recognize the humanity of the subjects.

Our futile attempts — through prohibition and punishment — have only worsened public health.

Beginning in the 1970s, Richard Nixon’s presidency was heavily based on combating illicit drug use. His anti-drug agendas didn’t leave much room for nuance, for there was a consensus that prohibiting drugs would intrinsically decrease drug use. 

His primary strategy was to criminalize drug possession and strengthen punishments for drug offenses. The results of his legacy can be seen through the mass incarceration subsequent to his presidency; from 1980 to 2019, the number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses jumped from 40,900 to 430,926

With these numbers, blatant prohibition must have been rendered an effective and successful way to respond to drug abuse, right? 

Not quite. Evidence suggests that prohibition generates only moderate reductions in drug use, even if there are more incarcerations. And unfortunately, the results of prohibition push past the boundaries of mere inefficacy and dive into utter, abysmal negligence.

Criminalization advocates argue that prison is multifaceted, serving as an adequate punishment and a successful rehabilitative program. However, contrary to popular belief, imprisonment does not equate to rehabilitation and punishment often results in retrograding progress, or in some cases, recidivism. 

Research has shown that about one-half of all prisoners meet the criteria for the diagnosis of drug abuse or dependence, yet 80-85% who could benefit from drug abuse treatment do not receive it. Even more specifically, 55% of local jail inmates met the criteria for drug abuse or dependence whereas only 7% received treatment while incarcerated.

This eradicates the possibility that prison is synonymous with rehabilitation. 

So, if rehabilitative treatment doesn’t occur in most cases, does punishment serve as an effective message to discontinue drug use? Not at all. An estimated 95% of incarcerated individuals with severe substance use disorders will relapse after release. 

To put it simply, despite being the primary response to drug use, criminalization fails to address long-term recovery and severely punishes individuals without regard to what was behind their behavior in the first place. When you examine the origins of addiction, you discover that it is often born out of environmental and psychological factors — most frequently a byproduct of underlying mental health conditions; 50% of individuals with substance abuse disorders had at least one co-occurring mental health disorder. 

Even so, our criminal justice system offers minimal treatment for either condition, demonstrating its inadequacy for rehabilitation. Despite this, America’s potent fallacy — that criminalization is the answer — has been implicitly adopted as truth, but perhaps, it is time to question if a new approach is necessary: one focusing on the neurochemistry of addiction. 

Within decriminalization discourse, the neurobiology of the addicted brain cannot be negated, for it plays a vital role in understanding the behavior of individuals with substance-use disorders.

Unfortunately, the stigma that surrounds addiction has created a misconception in which it is seen as a choice — driven by moral weakness, inability to resist temptation or otherwise inferior characteristics. 

Using a drug for the first time is a tangible choice, but continual use is not a matter of volition; science has confirmed that addiction is a chronic brain disease. It’s time to start treating it like one.

Amid ongoing neuroscience research, it has become clear that excessive drug use alters brain chemistry, and thus, converts the normal processes we rely on for decision-making, self-restraint, and motivation. 

Our brain is the source of our being; all thoughts, emotions, movements, and decisions originate from communication within the brain. So, when your cognitive ability is altered, the normal functionality of all human processes transforms with it. 

For the individual, understanding the origins of their adversity on a biological level puts their condition into a more comprehensible context and can help alleviate internalized guilt or resentment toward oneself. Eradicating self-condemnation can often spark a desire to seek treatment, and with the proper resources, this inclination is entirely possible.

Now, this isn’t to say that addiction vindicates one of their moral responsibilities, for eliminating blame is not synonymous with eliminating accountability. Holding yourself accountable is productive, for it fosters an environment of self-forgiveness and improvement, but currently, criminalization eliminates nuance from the conversation, endorsing a harmful, binary narrative onto addicted individuals. 

In other words, it conditions us to perceive addiction as a crime despite the abundance of contradictory evidence. If we want to apply this evidence in a scientifically and morally-correct way, we need to decriminalize drugs.

Understanding how decriminalization works is intrinsic to understanding its potential benefits. Common misconceptions often prevent full comprehension and applicability of its inner workings. 

In essence, decriminalization would terminate criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of illegal substances (heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, etc.) and reduce felony charges to misdemeanors for possessing slightly larger amounts. Instead, individuals caught in possession of drugs will receive a $100 fine, which will be waived by undergoing a health assessment. After completion, no further sanctions will be implemented, but access to rehabilitative resources will be provided and perhaps, recommended. 

These simple steps create the foundation of decriminalization: providing an incentive to evaluate physical and mental health, and increasing accessibility for treatment options. 

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “Decades of empirical evidence from around the world shows that reducing and eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession does not increase rates of drug use or crime — while drastically reducing addiction, overdose and HIV/AIDS.”

If mitigating a punishment doesn’t result in increased drug use and it offers an opportunity to increase public health, why aren’t we enforcing decriminalization? For many, it comes down to one thing: denial of the inevitability of drug use. 

As neuroscientist and decriminalization advocate Carl Hart said, “People will always use drugs. We must learn to live with this fact.” While drug use is unavoidable, the crisis that comes along with it — addiction, death, mass incarceration, etc — isn’t, and we have the power to prevent the escalation between use and abuse. 

In 2001, Portugal put this philosophy to the test by fully decriminalizing drugs. 

Predictably, their reform resulted in extremely positive changes.

From 1999 to 2013, the number of incarcerated people for drug law violations decreased drastically from 44% to 24%. This, in and of itself, is monumental, but perhaps, the even more imperative result is this: In the ten years after decriminalization, the number of people in drug treatment increased by 60%.  

With Portugal’s development, the majority of beliefs fueling decriminalization resistance can be disproved: individuals do seek help when they aren’t subject to punishment. 

Furthermore, in 2019, Portugal averaged only 6 drug deaths per million people. In stark contrast, America averaged 314.5 drug deaths per million people just in those aged 15-64. 

It’s not hard to find the cause of this dichotomy: a manifestation of decriminalization versus prohibition. 

Portugal’s reform created a stellar framework that corroborates decriminalization’s efficacy. It’s time for America to follow in their footsteps — rectifying our own drug policies. 

In fact, portions of the U.S. are starting to adopt this mindset, pushing federal decriminalization into a realm of possibility. In 2020, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize possession of illicit drugs. 

In the subsequent year, the Drug Policy Alliance partnered with the Health Justice Recovery Alliance to allocate $302 million in funding for the development of Oregon’s services in the next two years.

These funds were directly distributed to recovery-oriented organizations, programs, services, and resources, all of which share a common goal: a desire to support addicted individuals. For example, 30 organizations adopted more harm reduction services, 33 service providers increased treatment accessibility to uninsured and disadvantaged people, and 52 organizations hired peer support specialists — a position filled by an individual who has struggled with addiction and understands the recovery process.

These resources are at the foundation of recovery, and Oregon’s concerted efforts to decrease drug arrests and increase accessibility to services will save thousands from obstructive incarceration — and ultimately, begin alleviating the drug epidemic.

This is an important step in the right direction, but one state alone cannot rewrite a narrative that is deeply ingrained into the bones of our country. 

We need more people to jump on board, and surprisingly, this movement may be approaching quicker than we realize. A recent poll found that 66% of Americans now support “eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession and replacing them with a new approach centered in public health.” 

Ultimately, the power of the citizens fuels policy change, so if support maintains its steady increase, decriminalization may soon be a plausible reality.

Contrary to popular belief, drug decriminalization is not a “radical” solution to our drug epidemic; it would merely evoke neutrality, bringing us to a basis of human dignity and decency.

What is truly radical is maintaining a prohibiting system that has caused blatant regression. It terminates the consideration of mental health, fosters social exclusion, and acts contrary to science and logic. 

Drug prohibition is not the answer; fifty years of it has solely exacerbated the problem. It is time for change and right now, we have an opportunity to evaluate and reform drug laws to optimize public health and safety, and begin to rewrite the American justice system. 

Furthermore, decriminalization would go beyond merely aiding addicted individuals with the support they need.

It would destigmatize addiction.

It would spare people the paralyzing, life-long consequences of a criminal conviction.

It would improve relations between law enforcement and the community.

It would help cease the disproportionate drug arrests in communities of color. 

It would reduce the prison population.

It would empower people to seek help without fear.

And, perhaps most importantly, it would help create a climate of compassion — a societal desire for the success of all people without regard to their engagement, or lack thereof, with drugs.