16 Decriminalization of Drugs Pros and Cons

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The War on Drugs became an American political icon of the U.S. government’s quest to prohibit the acquisition of certain drugs that were made illegal. These drugs, often psychoactive, became heavily criminalized in the 1970s and standardized sentencing in the 1980s and 1990s created long prison sentences for the simple act of possessing these drugs. That is why an effort to decriminalize these drugs, even though the United Nations has declared some to be illegal, has become a point of emphasis for some.

The benefit of decriminalizing drugs is that it would free up prison space for offenders that are truly violent or unsafe. Just 16% of current prisoners, according to information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, commit violent crimes to obtain money that they use to purchase drugs. That would reduce overcrowding, reduce confinement costs, and provide options for prisoner rehabilitation that do not currently exist.

The disadvantage that comes with decriminalizing drugs is that there are non-violent dangers to society that would likely increase. In communities that are struggling with heroin use, used needles are often left in parks and other public spaces. This sharps risk creates a disease and injury risk to anyone in the area, and especially children.

Here are some additional decriminalization of drugs pros and cons to think about.

List of the Pros of Drug Decriminalization

1. It can support lower addiction rates and substance abuse rates.
Portugal has supported drug decriminalization for more than a decade. What they have discovered since they made this effort is that not only do addiction rates to the once illegal drugs go down, but so do the substance abuse rates. Because those that do have addiction or substance abuse issues are not jailed, but treated, the costs of treatment are typically lower and there are higher rates of recovery.

2. It encourages people to remain within society.
Even when there is a drug problem that must be treated, treatment programs for drug use can encourage people to remain a productive member of society. When drug use is penalized with criminal statutes, it becomes more difficult for individuals who take drugs to find meaningful employment. It is much easier to find a job when there isn’t a felony on your record due to your possession of a drug that was deemed to be illegal.

3. It changes how society sees people.
When drug use is illegal, a counter-culture arises that celebrates and encourages its use. When it is legalized, that counter-culture begins to disappear. Non-drug users aren’t as quick to condemn others. Addiction can be treated more like a disease instead of being treated like a legal problem. People become people once again without different classes of superiority assigned by the general population to what drugs people use or why they use them.

4. It allows the criminal justice system to focus on what it does best.
The criminal justice system was not designed to be a system that treats addicts. It was designed to be a system that uses courts to keep the general population free from harm. Although the goal of creating laws against drug use to stop people from using potentially harmful substances is a worthy goal, that mandate would be better fulfilled by counselors, treatment facilities, and other forms of infrastructure.

5. Decriminalization isn’t the same as legalization.
In the United States, several states have legalized the ability for individuals to acquire marijuana for recreational purposes. The federal guidelines issued by the Obama administration were an effort to decriminalize marijuana possession in those states without changing the overall laws for everyone else. There isn’t a slippery slope in place here. Decriminalizing drug use doesn’t make it legal. It just takes the legal penalties away from at-risk individuals. Selling and distributing the drug would still be a criminal offense.

6. It could reduce societal violence.
In 1989, 7.4% of homicides in the United States were considered to be drug related. In 2007, 3.9% of homicides were classified in the same way. At the same time, the homicide rate within the U.S. dropped from just under 19,000 cases in 1989 to just under 15,000 cases in 2007. As drug laws have been loosened and certain activities decriminalized, violent conduct has been reduced at the same time.

7. It could help us treat mental health with greater success.
76% of jailed inmates, according to a U.S. Department of Justice Report, who were charged with drug-related crimes suffer from at least one mental health issue.

8. Drugs aren’t the primary problem for violence in society.
Drugs may have had a war against them, but it is alcohol that is the primary problem in society today. In 2007, there were 5.2 million violent victimization incidents registered by the National Crime Victimization Survey involving people 12 years of age or older. 1 in 4 victims stated that their attacker was under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol is believed to be a factor in 40% of all violence crimes today, according to data published by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

9. It reduces secretive behavior.
People pursue drugs in secret because they don’t want to be caught. What gets overlooked is the fact that people also pursue drugs in secret because they are ashamed of their addiction. Their habits bring guilt. When the legality of their addiction places their freedom at risk, there is a barrier in place to seek the help they may recognize is needed. Decriminalizing drugs reduces the stigma, which eliminates this barrier, allowing people to have more control over their life once again.

List of the Cons of Drug Decriminalization

1. It may encourage experimentation.
Some individuals may have a genetic disposition toward drug use and addiction. Allowing these people to have open access to whatever drug they wish to use could create an atmosphere where experimentation is encouraged. If there are no laws in place that would prevent them from acquiring whatever drugs they wish to have, it could create more health problems for certain individuals – even with greater access to treatment.

2. It would reduce prices.
When there isn’t a legal barrier in place to prevent drug access, the system of a free market takes over for the industry. That means there is a greater supply of the drug available, which could lower prices. If pricing is a barrier to entry or experimentation for some individuals, then the decriminalization of drugs would encourage them to try something when they may not have done so otherwise. Some drugs only require one dose to become addictive or potentially life-threatening.

3. Treatment infrastructures are not present.
Although the costs of incarceration and treatment would be reduced, the cost of treating addictions in the general population would rise. The current infrastructure may not be able to support the added number of individuals who would seek out help. That would mean added costs would come in the form of building assets and training more counselors to handle the needs of the society. Depending upon how decriminalization was implemented, the costs could be higher than they are under the current structure.

4. Decriminalization can lead to legalization.
Although the purpose may not be to legalize drugs with a decriminalization effort, there is always the potential that this could happen. For some drugs, such as marijuana, legalization can provide tax benefits to fund school and infrastructure programs, along with treatment opportunities. For strong drugs, such as heroin or meth, the benefits of decriminalizing its use could be less than the risks to society that these drugs cause. Strong drugs can cause behavioral changes that lead to violence.

5. Safety problems could become worse instead of better.
Even when safe centers are placed in areas of high drug use, individuals may still choose to take their drugs in non-safe locations. Increased access to injectable drugs could result in higher health risks for exposure in public locations. People who have taken drugs and then drive somewhere place the public at risk as well, just as if the person had been drinking alcohol and driving. Alcohol may be the primary contributor to violence, but increased access to drugs of any type will increase the risks of violence occurring to someone.

These decriminalization of drugs pros and cons suggest that the benefits seen in Portugal could be something that other nations may experience as well. Because drugs can be potentially harmful or be the cause of violent behavior, there must be strong controls placed upon the use of these substances. There must be logical consequences in the court system to protect the safety of the general population. At the end of the day, it is up to each community to decide if decriminalization is the right way to move forward.

If you need help with sobriety or are fighting an addiction, there are several hotlines available to you so that life can get back on track. Contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline today at 1 (800) 662-4357 (HELP). It is open 24/7, 365 days per year, with help available in English and Spanish.