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It's Been a Landmark Year for Drug Decriminalization: Here's Why That Matters

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Key Takeaways

  • Drug decriminalization removes criminal penalties for drug law violations.
  • In the United States, marijuana is now legal for medical use in 36 states and for recreational use in 15 states.
  • Oregon recently decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin when possessed in small amounts.
  • Other countries, like Portugal and Switzerland, have seen overdose rates decline, HIV and other infectious disease rates plummet, and a surge in people voluntarily accessing addiction treatment and recovery services. 

Could the U.S. war on drugs be over? Not quite, but more progress on drug policy reform has been made in 2020 than in any other year. Arizona, Montana, and New Jersey have all voted to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. South Dakota became the first state to simultaneously legalize recreational and medical marijuana. In Mississippi, Initiative 65 will establish a medical marijuana program. 

In D.C., residents voted to make the use and possession of entheogenic plants (i.e. psychedelics like magic mushrooms) the lowest enforcement priority for police. But the most significant step has been taken in Oregon, where two groundbreaking measures will decriminalize all drugs (even hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, when possessed in small amounts) and legalize access to psilocybin for medicinal purposes. In line with the idea that drug use is more of a public health crisis than a criminal justice issue, Oregon has increased funding for addiction treatment services.

The Benefits of Drug Decriminalization

Those who support drug policy reform legislation believe that decriminalizing drug possession and investing in treatment and harm reduction services has many benefits for public safety and health, including:

  • Fewer arrests and incarcerations
  • Increased uptake into treatment and recovery services
  • Redirecting law enforcement resources to prevent serious and violent crimes
  • Lower criminal justice costs  

Matt Sutton, Director of Media Relations at the Drug Policy Alliance, offers some insight into the reasoning for widespread drug decriminalization efforts: "Between the overdose crisis that has claimed nearly 70,000 lives a year, a global pandemic that has revealed the extensive health disparities that exist in the U.S., especially among communities of color, and the country reckoning with its history of racial injustice through the eyes of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, punishing people for drug use no longer seems like any kind of reasonable solution."

Matt Sutton

Between the overdose crisis that has claimed nearly 70,000 lives a year, a global pandemic that has revealed the extensive health disparities that exist in the U.S....punishing people for drug use no longer seems like any kind of reasonable solution.

— Matt Sutton

There’s also the issue of stigma. “Criminalization serves as a huge barrier to people getting the treatment and other health services they need, because of fear of punishment and the stigma associated with a substance that is considered ‘criminal’,” Sutton says. 

The Covid-19 Effect

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on people who use drugs. “While we battle the coronavirus, we’re experiencing an overdose epidemic, which is claiming a record number of deaths in many parts of the country,” says Kasia Malinowska, the director of the Global Drug Policy Program at the Open Society Foundations.

Malinowska explains, “There is an increased recognition that jails and prisons are not an appropriate response for drug use and dependence. What our country needs to recognize is that policies that reduce the stigma and favor good quality drug treatment —like wide availability of naloxone and increased flexibility for methadone and buprenorphine treatment—should be made permanent.” 

Changing Perceptions

While marijuana will now be legal for medical use in 36 states and for recreational use in 15 states, other types of drugs have a longer route toward the same level of public acceptance. But attitudes are changing, even when it comes to the psychedelic drugs that have been portrayed by the media for decades as extremely dangerous.

In fact, a growing body of scientific research suggests that classic serotonergic psychedelics (such as psilocybin) are not only physiologically safe, but have the potential to revolutionize psychiatric research and treatment. 

Kasia Malinowska

There is widespread optimism that Oregon’s experience with implementing Measure 110 to decriminalize personal possession of all drugs will lead as an inspiration to reform drug policies across the country.

— Kasia Malinowska

“The older generations’ perception of psychedelic drugs has been shifted by the near constant reports as to their scientifically proven benefits,” says New Mexico-based writer and co-producer of the podcast “No Cures, Only Alchemy,” Bett Williams. “Younger people never carried the stigma about psychedelics in the first place, and [they] are either ambivalent or approving.” 

Learning from Other Countries

Many other countries have some form of drug decriminalization. Sutton points to Portugal (where the personal possession of all drugs was decriminalized in 2001) and Switzerland (where minor possession of marijuana was decriminalized to a fine in 2013) as examples. “These countries have seen overdose rates decline, HIV and other infectious disease rates plummet, and a huge uptick in people voluntarily accessing services as a result,” Sutton says. 

Measure 110 in Oregon is similar to what was done in Portugal and Switzerland, Sutton notes. “It pairs decriminalization with increased access to health services, funded by excess marijuana tax revenue and law enforcement cost savings, ensuring people get the care they need.” 

“There is widespread optimism that Oregon’s experience with implementing Measure 110 to decriminalize personal possession of all drugs will lead as an inspiration to reform drug policies across the country,” Malinowska adds. 

What This Means For You

It's important to abide by the laws relating to medical or recreational drug use in your state to avoid criminal charges. If you think you need treatment for drug addiction, speak to your healthcare provider.

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Article Sources
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  1. Marlatt GA, Witkiewitz K. Update on harm-reduction policy and intervention research. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2010;6:591-606. doi:10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.121208.131438

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. America’s drug overdose epidemic: putting data to action. Updated August 28, 2020.

  3. American Medical Association. Issue Brief: Reports of Increases in Opioid- and Other Drug-Related Overdose and Other Concerns During COVID Pandemic. Updated October 31, 2020.

  4. National Conference of State Legislatures. State medical marijuana laws. Updated November 10, 2020.

  5. Davis AK, Barrett FS, May DG, et al. Effects of psilocybin-assisted therapy on major depressive disorder: a randomized clinical trialJAMA Psychiatry. 2020. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.3285

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