Decriminalization vs. Legalization of Drugs


Brandon Giesbrecht

With Oregon passing Measure 110 during the election, many people have been asking: should more states decriminalize hard drugs?

The 2020 election has brought change for the whole country. Though many of our eyes were focused on the presidential election, there were many interesting changes on smaller statewide and local levels. A very controversial bill passed in Oregon, Measure 110, makes it the first state to decriminalize many hard drugs. It also designated some funds from the legal distribution of marijuana to help recovering addicts. This bill classifies drug possession as a Class E violation, meaning a maximum fine of $100. But what does decriminalization really mean, and how is it different from drug legalization? 

Many citizens fear passing this bill will lead to more drug use, but the purpose of this legislation is exactly the opposite. Decriminalization means that possession of controlled substances such as cocaine or heroin will lead to a fine or a health assessment. However, those who manufacture or distribute these substances could still face criminal charges. On the other hand, when drugs are legalized, the manufacturing and distribution are legal and legitimate business models. Though Oregon is the first state in the U.S. to decriminalize these drugs, it has been very successful in other countries. 

In 2001 Portugal passed a similar decriminalization bill, which classified users as patients rather than criminals. One of the most successful aspects of the bill was the decrease of newly diagnosed HIV cases in Portuguese citizens who inject drugs, with cases falling from 1,016 in 2001 to 56 in 2012. New AIDS diagnoses for users who inject drugs in the same timeframe went from 568 to 38. Cases of Hepatitis B and C have since also fallen among those who seek drug treatment. All this, even while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction was on the rise.

Classifying drugs as illegal and possession as a felony can be very damaging. Historically the people who are most harmed by this illegality are people of color. The war on drugs was the start of widespread fear in America surrounding drug use, as well as increasing the punishment of users. The origins of the war on drugs and drug criminalization are largely racial. Nearly three-quarters of drug offenders in federal prisons in 2015 were people of color. People of color are punished more for drug use and possession and are more at risk. People living in poor neighborhoods, or majority non-white neighborhoods are more at risk for drug use and will have a more difficult time getting help or getting off drugs. Homeless people are some of the most at risk for drug and alcohol abuse and have the hardest time recovering. Statistics from 2008 show that 26% of the homeless population in the United States were drug abusers. 

If people are able to seek help for drug addiction and overdose without fear of arrest, the addiction and overdose rates are far lower. If people think they may be overdosing on an illegal drug, they may not seek help, while if the drug is legal or decriminalized, they can receive aid and support without getting in trouble with the law. People are always going to do drugs; it’s impossible to stop drug consumption completely. The next best thing is allowing people to get off drugs or to get help. The use of funds from marijuana sales allocated to helping recovering addicts can also help those living in poverty, allowing them to seek medical help for their addiction or a potential overdose without worrying about medical costs.

Overall, decriminalizing these drugs helps impoverished communities and lessens the negative impact on people of color who have been adversely affected by drugs and their criminalization. The statistics show that other countries like Switzerland who have tried this have been successful, and there’s no reason to think this bill in Oregon will be any different. While decriminalizing drugs is still a controversial idea, the facts show that working to decriminalize drugs is a worthwhile endeavor.  Decriminalization has been shown to help improve impoverished communities, relieve inequity for people of color, and even lessen the spread of blood-transmittable illnesses. The United States still has a long way to go to unravel the historical stigmas surrounding addiction. But Bills such as Measure 110 can lead the way to reform the policies surrounding drug use and pave the way to societal change for the better.