As several US states have recently decided to legalize medical or even recreational marijuana and moves are afoot to decriminalize drug addiction in general, many people are considering the impact these changes might have on individuals, communities, and our culture in general. From favorable comparisons to the end of prohibition on one side to dire warnings of rampant addiction on the other, discerning the true pros and cons of these changes can be quite challenging.
What Does Decriminalization Really Mean?
Decriminalization is not the same as legalization. In Portugal, for instance, virtually all drug use was decriminalized in 2001. That does not, however, mean that drug use is legal. The distribution and sale of controlled substances is still a criminal offense in Portugal, but possession and use of drugs are handled as a public health problem and not criminal activity. Cases of substance abuse and addiction are handled by counselors, psychologists, and social workers instead of police and prison wardens. While there may be certain substances, such as marijuana, that would be made truly legal in some cases, the decriminalization of drugs does not mean that users could get high in public and buy and sell chemicals from whomever they please no fear of prosecution. It simply changes the way society deals with the problem of addiction from a legal and treatment perspective.
Pros of Addiction Decriminalization
Now that Portugal’s decriminalization process is over a decade old, there are several long-term benefits that have been recognized, including the following:
- Substance abuse and addiction rates have been cut in half since decriminalization
- Addiction treatment and rehabilitation are less expensive than incarceration
- Individuals with substance abuse problems are much more likely to find recovery in rehab than in jail
- People completing treatment can become productive members of society much more easily than convicted felons
- Violence related to drug trafficking is greatly reduced
- Courts are freed up for other important work
- The rebellious, countercultural essence of drug use is changed when society sees it as a disease and not a crime
Many decriminalization advocates point to the success of Portugal as a positive statement in favor of decriminalization.
Cons of Decriminalization
Not everyone is convinced that decriminalization is the best way forward for the United States. Detractors often cite the following concerns:
- Individuals with a biological predisposition toward addiction may be more likely to experiment with drugs if they do not fear legal prosecution
- The existing treatment resources are not nearly large enough to handle the influx of millions of new addicts from the legal system
- Decriminalization may lead to a push for legalization in some situations
- If decriminalization leads to an increased supply of drugs on the streets of the US, prices will fall and millions of new people may be tempted to experiment
Most Americans do not come face to face with drugs or with drug addicts until someone in their lives is affected. This lack of familiarity can lead to fear of the unknown. Individuals and communities with moral or spiritual objections to substance abuse often fear that decriminalization sends a message of at least partial endorsement for harmful habits and lifestyles to young and impressionable people.