Since the Reagan-era escalation of the war on drugs, severe criminal penalties for drug possession have fueled a huge growth in the prison population, with particularly devastating consequences for many Black communities, where both penalties and policing have been harsher than for Whites. Using the criminal justice system as the primary tool to curb the sale and use of illicit substances has had astronomical costs without the desired effects.
In recent years, opioid overdose deaths have soared — nearly 50,000 in 2018 — underscoring just how cruel and counterproductive it is to criminalize addiction, a fact long understood by Black communities ravaged by crack cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s. Not only are incarcerated opioid users much more likely to fatally overdose shortly after being released than the general population, but contact with the criminal justice system can throw up barriers to employment, housing and government benefits, making it harder to overcome addiction. People battling addiction benefit from treatment and are harmed by imprisonment.
Oregon’s ballot initiative to fully decriminalize personal use of even harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin leans explicitly on this logic. Although selling these substances is still illegal, those found with small quantities will now pay a $100 fine or be given options for addiction treatment. Crucially, the measure also expands addiction services, using the tax on marijuana sales to fund new treatment centers. (Marijuana was legalized in Oregon in 2014.)
There is logic to funding a public health approach to addiction through taxes on legalized drugs, but a move toward a more humane, compassionate and effective approach to addiction should not be contingent on tax streams that may or may not materialize as predicted — and that may provide unwise incentives to promote drug use. The challenge for public policy in decriminalizing drugs is to avoid the harms of criminalization without promoting, or seeming to promote, the use of drugs that may have harmful effects, especially for young people. It’s difficult to know how new drug laws will affect drug usage overall, and there is a relative lack of rigorous research on the long-term effects of illicit drug use. Caution is warranted.
It follows that a clear role for the government is to enable rigorous research that can support decision-making on the complex questions that lie ahead. This should include changing marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug, a federal classification that makes the drug’s potential medical value harder to study.
More broadly, as states implement varied new drug laws, researchers will be able to closely observe these laboratories of democracy, hopefully ushering in a new phase of drug policy based on evidence and the principles of public health.