What Does It Mean To Decriminalize Drugs?

Bella Martin, Sports Editor

In recent months, the decriminalization of drugs has gained national attention due to several states considering new legislation regarding the issue. 

In Jan. 2021, Virginia joined 15 other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing  the use of recreational marijuana. 23 other states have legalized the use of medical marijuana in recent years. 

Then, in Feb. 2021, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs such as methamphetamines and opioids. Instead of receiving punishment through jail time, those found in possession of these categories of drugs would face a $100 fine or a health assessment that could lead to addiction treatment if deemed necessary. Residents in the states passed the ballot measure by a wide margin. 

What does it really mean when states take this legislative action? Drug decriminalization would eliminate criminal penalties for the possession and use of drugs and possession of equipment that could be used to inject drugs, such as syringes or needles and also low-level drug sales.  

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, there were 1.5 million drug-related arrests in the United States. More than 86% of these arrests resulted from possession alone. Advocates for drug decriminalization hope that legalization would decrease the number of offenders in prisons and jails across the country. By reducing jail costs and overcrowding, decriminalization has the potential to also reduce the burden placed on police and the criminal justice system. 

Most importantly, the decriminalization of drugs has the potential to curb the opioid epidemic ravaging the country. Starting in 1971, the U.S. government instituted the “war on drugs” under President Richard Nixon. The initiative includes a set of policies and legislation aimed to discourage the use, production and distribution of illegal drugs. However, even with this campaign, the epidemic has continued on. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, over 1.6 million Americans had an opioid use disorder and over 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2019. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid problem has been exacerbated, as addicts no longer have a variety of treatment options or centers at their disposal.   

Now, with new decriminalization reforms, it is believed that with better resources for addiction treatment and rehabilitation readily available, the decriminalization of drugs could encourage opioid users and addicts to seek treatment. In recent years, countries such as Portugal have gone through the process of decriminalizing drugs, and have received positive results. 

In the 20 years of Portugal’s drug policy enforcement, drug-related crimes, incarceration, deaths by overdose and drug use have steadily decreased. Economic conditions in the country have also positively benefited. Advocates for drug and criminal justice reform hope for similar results in the United States. Now, with states such as Oregon and Virginia taking similar progressive measures, the war on drugs has entered a new phase.