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The Latest on the Decriminalization of Drugs

drug decriminalization and legalization word cloud

While many U.S. citizens expressed outrage at talk of decriminalizing all drugs just a few years ago, over half the population now favors such a proposal. Most states have already legalized medical marijuana, and 15 states have legalized possession and use of limited amounts of recreational marijuana.

Recreational marijuana is still illegal in Florida. Possession or sale of 20 grams or less is a misdemeanor offense that may carry a one-year prison sentence and a maximum fine of $1000. Possession of over 20 grams is a felony, with prison sentences varying according to the amount of marijuana an individual possesses. Felony conviction sentences can include up to 30 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. In Florida, it is also a felony to possess or sell hash or marijuana concentrates.

Orlando Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Pinellas County Sen. Jeff Brandes recently introduced legislation to legalize recreational marijuana in Florida.

Even the federal government has proposed legislation to decriminalize marijuana. The measure recently passed the House of Representatives but not the Senate. Even so, it dramatically underscores the climate of change regarding drug decriminalization, with many calling for decriminalization to extend to all drugs.

Decriminalization vs. Legalization of Drugs

In November 2020, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize the possession of all drugs. Decriminalization is not the same as legalization. It is still illegal to possess or use drugs other than marijuana, but it is a misdemeanor rather than a criminal violation as long as the quantities are within certain limits. The offender may receive a fine or court-ordered rehabilitation but not imprisonment.

Production, sale, possession or use that exceeds specific guidelines may result in criminal or civil penalties, however.

So why do so many, including Oregon voters, believe decriminalization of all drugs will have a positive impact? Here are some of the most common arguments in favor of drug decriminalization.

The Rationale for Drug Decriminalization

Imprisonment does not deter drug use

The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, a rate that has increased 500 percent over the last 40 years, according to the Sentencing Project. Prisons are full of people serving time on drug-related convictions, yet most experts agree that prison sentences rarely deter drug use, especially among young people.

The Prison Policy Initiative finds, “At least 1 in 4 people who go to jail will be arrested again within the same year — often those dealing with poverty, mental illness, and substance use disorders, whose problems only worsen with incarceration.”

Decriminalization improves disparities in our prison system

Statistics point to racial biases implicit in our judicial system. The Sentencing Project found that while people of color make up 37 percent of the U.S. census, they make up 67 percent of the prison population. Studies have found inequities in prison sentences applied to white offenders vs. offenders of color for the same offense.

Thousands of people arrested for drug violations remain in jail pretrial because they cannot afford to post bail. This puts an emotional and financial strain on the individual and their family, as the arrested individual cannot support loved ones.

Decriminalization benefits public safety and health

Statistics from countries that have reduced or abolished criminal penalties for drug possession underscore three important findings:

  • The rate of drug use or crime did not increase
  • The rate of addiction, overdoses, and HIV/AIDS sharply decreased
  • More people entered drug treatment programs

Individuals who buy drugs illegally have no way of knowing if the product is pure or laced with toxic ingredients. Illegal drugs mean there is no quality control.

With so many law enforcement resources dedicated to drug enforcement, other public health and safety issues suffer. With drug decriminalization, federal, state, and local governments can re-appropriate millions of dollars to other crime-related issues and expand drug treatment programs and community health services.

Decriminalization would have a positive financial impact

Imprisoning people for drug-related crimes costs billions of dollars each year. For example, Oregon spent about $375 million dollars in 2016 to arrest, prosecute and imprison drug offenders. Drug decriminalization will allow the state to use a portion of the money saved to fund new drug prevention and treatment centers.

According to a 2018 report by the Cato Institute on The Budgetary Effects of Ending Drug Prohibition, federal, state, and local entities spent about $48 billion in 2016 on drug prohibition. Decriminalization of all drugs can reduce government spending and generate tax revenue, freeing up resources to expand treatment services for substance use and mental health disorders and other community services.

The Rationale Against Drug Decriminalization

Decriminalization is highly complex

As this article from the Brookings Institute points out, supporters of drug decriminalization or legalization sometimes overlook how complicated this process actually can be. For example, how does a government determine which substances are permitted, for what use, and in what quantities? How involved should the government be in this process and on what level? These are the kinds of thorny questions that governments will need to tackle when moving forward with decriminalization.

Decriminalization can make accessing dangerous drugs easier

In a 2007 British Medical Journal article, addiction researcher Joseph Califano argued that decriminalization would make dangerous drugs easier to access. He pointed to the widespread use of alcohol and tobacco, both substances that are dangerous to human health, as a preview of what would come if more harmful drugs became available. As Califano noted, “Drugs are not dangerous because they are illegal; they are illegal because they are dangerous.”

Addiction is a Treatable Health Issue

Regardless of how you feel about drug decriminalization, we can all agree that people with substance use disorders should have the opportunity to access treatment. Whether or not our society chooses to decriminalize drugs, people struggling with addiction deserve to seek help, have access to expanded treatment resources, and keep themselves and their loved ones safe.

Turning Point of Tampa has been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Addiction, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987.

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