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Decriminalizing Recreational Drug Use America’s Only Hope of Prioritizing Public Health and Reducing Mass Incarceration is Legalization

By Julia WillettPublished January 16, 2022

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The United States currently faces widespread drug misuse and overdose. However, criminalizing drug possession and use is largely ineffective at breaking the cycle of abuse and even less effective at solving the larger public health crisis. Instead, tougher punishments build upon a history of mass incarceration and racially-biased policy while overburdening the U.S. prison system. Per the lead of other countries, decriminalization would allow for addiction to be treated as a health problem instead of a crime and, by focusing on rehabilitation, social and economic benefits would follow through centralized drug regulation and a reduced prison population.

Medical marijuana is legal in much of the United States, and Oregon has decriminalized heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine––demonstrating a shift in common perceptions and attitudes towards drugs. However, while attitudes about drugs are slowly changing, the legacy of the American War on drugs is fettered with failures. The country continues to reel from policies, such as Reagan’s mandatory minimum sentencing and police militarization, all while the number of imprisoned Americans continues to overburden the system. Thus, the time is now to explore new and radical strategies for ameliorating the issue of mass incarceration, starting with the decriminalization of recreational drug use. 

The United States incarcerates a larger share of its population than any other country, and  The World Prison Brief’s data estimates that the U.S. incarceration rate is 639 inmates per 100,000 people as of 2018, 13% higher than the rate of the next-closest country. In addition to its high rate of incarceration, the U.S. has the largest overall number of people behind bars, with more than 2 million jail and prison inmates.

One major factor for the imprisonment of such a large percentage of the population is the War on Drugs; one-fifth of those in jail are there for a drug-related crime. Mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strike laws exacerbate this problem, targeting drug users and addicts and contributing to high recidivism rates. By failing to treat addiction as a disease, the prison system offers addicts little support to escape the cycle of abuse, leaving them susceptible to continued abuse both within prison and after release. 

Minorities are more likely to be arrested for drug-related crimes and receive harsher punishments once arrested. By age 22, African-Americans have an 83% greater likelihood of a drug arrest than whites, and at age 27 this disparity becomes 235%. Additionally, while Black and White people use marijuana at the same rate, Blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession or use. 

In addition to providing social benefits in the United States, legalizing recreational drugs can improve the public health crisis. Currently, support for the legalization of marijuana is widespread, as fewer than 10% of American adults claim that marijuana should not be legal at all. However, when it comes to other drugs, many people take a paternalistic position, drawing a distinction between “soft drugs” like marijuana and “hard drugs” such as heroin and cocaine.

Such an argument lacks foresight when one considers that these “hard drugs” are much more addictive than marijuana and have far greater effects on one's health. Since drugs such as heroin or methamphetamine are chemically more addictive than marijuana, those addicted are unlikely to stop using them. 

A history of the criminalization of “hard” drugs demonstrates that imprisonment is largely ineffective at breaking the cycle of abuse and even less effective at solving the larger public health crisis. As federal prison spending increased by 595 percent between 1980 and 2013, self-reported use of illegal drugs increased, as well as the availability of heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine––as indicated by falling prices and a rise in drug purity. 

Countries such as Portugal have already made strides to decriminalize hard drugs, both by treating addiction as a health problem instead of a crime and by focusing on rehabilitation. Therefore, most of the money spent fighting drug abuse in Portugal is now filtered towards the country’s health care system, a policy that has been met with great success. The rate of drug use and drug-related deaths in Portugal has remained below the EU average since 2001. Additionally, the proportion of prisoners sentenced for drugs has fallen from 40% to 15%, proving that it is possible to fight drug addiction by focusing on public health. 

New York State has taken a step in the right direction, opening the nation's first two supervised drug injection sites in December 2021. In providing drug users with clean needles and supervised injections, free needle exchanges help to reduce HIV contraction and death through overdose. While opponents argue that these sites may actually facilitate drug usage, of utmost importance is that these sites instead reduce the number of deaths; more than 2,000 people died of a drug overdose in New York City in 2020.

Legalizing drugs would also benefit the country economically, as it would take money from drug dealers while regulating the market to ensure safer potency levels. The taxes generated from drug sales could also be allocated towards funding rehabilitation programs and the creation of educational campaigns. 

By decriminalizing drug use, the United States has an opportunity to make up for a history of inadequate and racially biased policy. In creating a system that prioritizes public health and safety, we can begin to address the drug abuse epidemic that currently plagues the United States.