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Decriminalizing the Simple Possession of Illegal Drugs

Executive Summary

Research has shown that the US war on drugs that was instituted by President Nixon has failed immensely. The program involved the enactment of laws and policies that were projected to solve the crisis through harsh punishments and other coercive measures. Since its implementation, the drug problem has worsened in America. Rates of addiction have increased, families have disintegrated, and the justice system has been accused of discriminatory incarcerations. This has necessitated the introduction of a proposal to decriminalize the simple possession of illicit substances. Proponents argue that it will enhance public health and safety, promote social and economic equality, and eradicate institutionalized racism. On the contrary, opponents argue that it will worsen opioid addiction as more people will experiment with drugs. Moreover, it will increase violence and crime in communities. Oregon is the first American state to decriminalize all drugs, and other jurisdictions will use it to study the impact of its laws and policies on the national crisis.

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In November 2020, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize illicit drugs through the enactment of Measure 110 into law. The United States of America has experienced a protracted fight against illicit drugs, commencing in the 1970s till now. The standardization of sentencing through the enactment of new and more stringent laws led to the introduction of long prison sentences for minor crimes such as possession, consumption, and sale of drugs. As a result, the population of prisons and correctional facilities increased immensely and has been on the rise over the past four decades. This explains why a proposal for the decriminalization of illicit drugs has become a hotly-debated issue in the country. Proponents of the suggestion argue that it will improve public health and safety, promote social and 4economi equality, and reduce the prison population, thus creating more room for violent and dangerous criminals. Currently, more than 28 states have legalized the use of medical and recreational marijuana and could decriminalize all drugs in the near future.

Arguments for Decriminalization of Drugs

Positive Impact on Public Health and Safety

Deaths from drug overdose have been on the rise in the United States in the past two decades. More people are losing their lives because of the avoidance of professional treatment as a way of hiding their problems. The stigmatization that is associated with addiction prevents many people from seeking help, which pushes them to abuse drugs and engage in other crimes (Drug Policy Alliance, 2017). Research has shown no correlation between the decriminalization of illicit substances and an increase in crime and violence. Therefore, decriminalizing drugs would encourage more people to seek medical help in order to address their addiction problems. Law enforcement officers make more than a million arrests annually for possession offenses. However, this does little to address the problems of addiction and the availability of illegal substances in communities.

Current anti-drug policies have been criticized for their ineffectiveness with regard to dealing with public health and safety concerns, as well as mitigating the crisis. Millions of dollars are used in the incarceration of criminals, and families are disintegrating due to addictions. Decriminalization of drugs would reduce addiction and overdose problems and lower crime. Moreover, it would aid in the mitigation of mental health problems among addicts. The US Department of Justice has indicated that approximately 75% of inmates incarcerated for drug-related crimes deal with mental health issues (Drug Policy Alliance, 2017). Instead of spending millions to maintain prisoners, the money could be used to offer medical help and fund rehabilitation programs. The decriminalization of drugs would have positive effects on both public health and safety. Several groups and organizations, including the United Nations, Organization of American States, Human Rights Watch, American Public Health Association, NAACP, and Movement for Black Lives, support the implementation of the proposal.

A Better Alternative to the “War on Drugs” Program

In 1971, President Nixon launched the “War on Drugs” initiative to fight the drug crisis in America. However, the program has failed immensely because the population of Latino and African Americans has grown significantly in prisons. Moreover, it has failed to address the opioid epidemic, overburdened the prison system, and enhanced violence within the illegal drug market (Drug Policy Alliance, 2017). Currently, the justice system embraces a punitive approach to mitigate the crisis. On the contrary, the state of Oregon has decided to take a different approach that will divert millions of dollars toward funding treatment and drug rehabilitation programs (Westervelt, 2021). For instance, about $100 million of the money collected from marijuana sales tax every year will fund such initiatives (Sutton, 2020). This move will aid in dealing with the opioid epidemic that has necessitated the development of a proposal to decriminalize illicit drugs.

The imposition of harsh and long prison sentences contributed greatly to the present opioid crisis in America. The war was focused mainly on incarcerating individuals who were involved in the possession, sale, and consumption of illegal substances (Westervelt, 2021). The rehabilitative component of mitigating drug abuse was ignored, and more people of color were imprisoned. Government statistics reveal that the prison population has grown by more than 1.2 million people, 20% of whom were incarcerated for drug-related offenses (Drug Policy Alliance, 2017). The crisis being experienced in the prison system could be alleviated through the decriminalization of illegal drugs (Scheim et al., 2020). Instead of incarcerating people and increasing the prison population, they could be sent to rehabilitation centers or sentenced to community service.

Enhanced Economic Equality and Reduced Institutionalized Racism

Drug-related incarcerations have severe effects on society: they hurt family units, they increase economic inequality, and they encourage institutionalized racism. As a result, many capable people are denied the opportunity to fend for their families through meaningful work and occupations. In the United States, more than 1.5 million arrests are made annually for drug law violations (Davies, 2017). The majority of these relate to possession of illicit substances, which is considered a criminal offense. Moreover, a large percentage of those arrested are held pre-trial, awaiting their arraignment in court because they cannot afford to post bail.

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Research has shown that discriminatory incarcerations have led to serious racial and ethnic disparities, with people of color being at the receiving end. The US Criminal Justice System has been widely criticized for promoting social inequality and discrimination by focusing the enforcement of laws on members of certain minority groups (Scheim et al., 2020). For example, African Americans make up approximately 35% of those convicted of drug possession, even though they comprise a mere 13% of the country’s population (Davies, 2017). Another adverse effect of current laws is mass detentions and deportations that are usually discriminatory, especially for minority immigrants. Between the years 2007 and 2012, more than 250,000 people were deported for drug possession without the possibility of reentry (Davies, 2017). Mass deportations and incarcerations are expensive and cost taxpayers millions of dollars every year. This money could be diverted to rehabilitation programs that could help reunite families and improve communities.

Successful Decriminalization in Other Jurisdictions and Countries

The United States should consider decriminalizing the simple possession of illegal drugs because it has worked in other countries. The majority of laws are passed to either criminalize or decriminalize drugs, with different states enacting varied legislation. For example, some states and jurisdictions have decriminalized marijuana possessions, others have reduced criminal penalties related to use and possession, while others have passed more stringed laws (Davies, 2017). As mentioned earlier, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize all drugs. Therefore, the possession of any illegal substance will be dealt with as a misdemeanor and not a crime (Sutton, 2020). Other positive steps toward decriminalizing drugs include the ratification of medical and recreational marijuana in several states, the passage of 911 Good Samaritan laws, and the implementation of pre-arrest diversion programs.

Several countries, including Portugal, have successfully implemented drug decriminalization laws and enjoyed several benefits that the United States can learn from and follow suit. The law reforms enacted in the country in 2001 heralded a new period in its criminal justice system transformation and how drug-related issues are handled (Davies, 2017). The restructurings decriminalized the possession of small quantities of drugs as well as their use. In that regard, an individual cannot be arrested or imprisoned for possession. The benefits that have been observed include increased admissions to rehabilitation centers, decreased cases of addiction, reduced overdose instances, and cost savings because rehabilitation is less expensive than incarceration (Scheim et al., 2020). Moreover, courts have time to deal with more serious crimes, and people with drug problems can seek medical help and become productive members of society without being discriminated against.

Arguments against Decriminalization of Drugs

Opponents argue that the move could have serious health and safety implications: increased cases of addictions and higher crime rates. Many people refrain from using drugs because of the legal repercussions that might befall them if they are incarcerated. In that case, decriminalization will encourage experimentation with drugs, especially among young people (Scheim et al., 2020). Moreover, it could lead to more addictions. The implementation of new laws will also increase the availability of drugs and, as a result, worsen the opioid epidemic that is currently affecting America (Davies, 2017). They also argue that the move could necessitate legalization in certain cases, thus introducing more serious health and safety ramifications. The passage of laws to decriminalize illicit drugs would make accessing illegal substances easier, even for children and teenagers (Scheim et al., 2020). They cite the widespread use of alcohol and tobacco as examples of what would happen if the use and possession of drugs were reduced to a misdemeanor. The success observed in Portugal, they claim, is not only a result of a policy change but also various alterations in public perceptions and other social paradigms.

The opponents have also argued that decriminalization will lead to increased crime and render rehabilitation programs ineffective. They argue that the move will increase the number of addicts in need of medical attention, and the current resources cannot cater to the needs of more individuals. This will overburden the current system and render it ineffective (Scheim et al., 2020). Colorado legalized the use of marijuana in 2014, and so far, the outcome has not been impressive. For instance, four years after the enactment of laws to support the decision, the rate of marijuana consumption in the state rose above the national average and medical issues related to marijuana increased (Sutton, 2020). It is evident from research that enacting more stringent laws does not address the opioid epidemic that is affecting America (Scheim et al., 2020). Imposing harsh prison sentences does not mitigate the problem of drug abuse and trafficking. The successes obtained in Portugal and certain states in the US where medical and recreational marijuana is legal should serve as examples of how to implement decriminalization effectively. According to research, the use of long prison sentences to mitigate the crisis is ineffective (Westervelt, 2021). Therefore, the US should consider decriminalizing drugs so as to alleviate the high incarceration and drug abuse rates.


The war on drugs was launched by President Nixon more than five decades ago. The move was projected to curb the rise in drug use, possession, and trafficking in the US. However, the program has failed immensely because the problem has worsened, and addictions have increased. Currently, America is dealing with an opioid epidemic that has resulted from a wrong approach to curbing drug abuse. The decriminalization of illicit drugs has been mentioned as one of the most effective ways of dealing with the crisis in America. Proponents argue that it will have positive public health and safety outcomes, enhance economic and social equality, and eliminate institutionalized racism. Portugal is one of the countries that have decriminalized all drugs. In that regard, an individual cannot be incarcerated for the possession of illicit substances. Benefits that have been experienced include decreased rates of addiction and drug abuse, higher rates of admission into rehabilitation centers, reduced incidences of drug trafficking, and shifts in societal perceptions regarding addiction. Moreover, courts have more time to deal with crimes that have more serious repercussions on communities and society. Proponents of decriminalization cite Portugal as an example of a country that implemented the proposal successfully and changed the lives of individuals, families, and communities. Opponents fear that without the criminalization of drugs, many people might be tempted to experiment, thus increasing the number of addicts. Moreover, current resources are insufficient to deal with the high number of people who will become addicted to drugs.


Davies, J. (2017). 4 reasons why the US needs to Decriminalize drugs, and why we’re closer than you think. Web.

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Drug Policy Alliance. (2017). J. It’s time for the US to decriminalize drug use and possession. Web.

Scheim, A. I., Maghsoudi, N., Marshall, et al. (2020). Impact evaluations of drug decriminalization and legal regulation of drug use, health and social harms: A systematic review. BMJ Open 10(9), e035148. Web.

Sutton, M. (2020). Drug policy action’s measure 110 prevails, making Oregon the first US state to decriminalize all drugs and expand access to addiction and health services. Web.

Westervelt, E. (2021). Oregon’s pioneering drug decriminalization experiment is now facing the hard test. Web.

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