The war on drugs has been a complete failure. Particularly in the United States, attempts to limit the supply of drugs, and therefore make them too expensive to buy, have simply not worked. In fact, despite Ronald Reagan’s escalation of the drug war in the 1980s, drug prices were often lower towards the end of his second term and in the decades that followed than they had been before. Moreover, by trying to stop the supply rather than the demand, authorities did not prevent people from taking them, but merely caused those involved with the production and selling of drugs to move elsewhere. This has led to increased violence in Central America in particular, and to thousands of deaths.
It’s also a war that has disproportionately targeted people of colour. Black Americans are not only four times more likely to be searched for cannabis, but men sentenced by federal courts on average received a sentence 19% longer than their white counterparts. Black American women are also suffering due to mass incarceration. Even those who have argued that President Nixon’s declaration of a war against drugs was not deliberately racist cannot deny the unequal effects it had on different races in America. This conflict has not helped those suffering with addictions, nor has it brought justice, nor has it ended violence. It has been a catastrophe that has punished and shamed rather than helped, reformed or rehabilitated.
Treating drugs as more of a health issue than a criminal one is a step in the right direction
But could things be about to change? The US state of Oregon has recently decriminalised possession of all drugs intended for personal use, the first state to do so. Rather than jail time, people found to have small amounts of drugs on them such as heroin, MDMA, or cocaine could face a $100 fine or a health assessment, with the possibility of rehabilitation. Treatments will be funded through a tax on cannabis. Treating drugs as more of a health issue than a criminal one is a step in the right direction. Former First Lady Nancy Reagan told Americans to ‘just say no’, but this was entirely the wrong approach. Firstly, it focused too much on individuals and not the conditions that led people to take these substances. Secondly, if someone did want to control their addiction, why on earth would they go to the authorities that not only would misunderstand them, but throw them in jail? But if vulnerable people really can seek help without being judged, then this could be an opportunity to finally offer them help.
Attitudes towards drugs have been changing in the USA for a few years now. Just last year, Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota all voted to legalise marijuana, albeit in some of these states just for medicinal purposes. The drugs war is not only futile and harmful but by the looks of things, unpopular. The fact Oregon decriminalised all drugs for personal use surely means it is only a matter of time until other states do the same, and that isn’t a bad thing. Decriminalisation is not about promoting drugs, but rather trying to control them more effectively and keeping people safe. In the words of Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, “criminalization creates barriers to treatment” and “if we want people to make different choices, we have to give them more options”.
We can only hope other states begin to adopt similar methods, and that this in turn leads to greater changes
Of course, decriminalisation is not enough on its own. America needs to not only change legislation for the future but undo and make amends for the harmful acts it has already committed. There are countless Americans in jail for small drugs offences who should be released. There are massive inequalities that need to be addressed, such as access to healthcare. To truly win the war against drugs you also need to wage war on problems like poverty and homelessness. In 2018, 46,000 Americans died due to an overdose, and the current coronavirus pandemic is making it even harder to prevent further deaths. The scale of this problem is massive, and a simple change in the law simply isn’t going to be enough. It is, however, a start.
Oregon’s new approach towards drugs will not solve all drug related problems, but it certainly is a better way to deal with the problem than a mindless, needlessly cruel crusade against drug users. We can only hope other states begin to adopt similar methods, and that this in turn leads to greater changes.