Considering the Radical: Decriminalization

President Biden recently passed a bill pardoning all those who were convicted of possessing minor quantities of marajuana, signaling a possible new era of a national approach towards the drug epidemic that plagues this nation. Such change is necessary. When we think about the opioid epidemic, and the War on Drugs in general, we have to admit that the strategy we’ve tried to employ for the last 50 years—that of applying military force, political pressure, and criminal convictions to discourage drug use and production—has been an abject failure. With experimental results in decriminalization now yielding astonishing success, countries the world across should reconsider how to deal with issues of drug consumption. 

As long as there is a demand for drugs, there will always be a supply for them, no matter how many trillions we invest, nor how many lives we take in anti-drug operations. This logic of tallying the number of kingpins killed, cartels dismantled or fractured, drug operations disrupted and destroyed, and the amount of arrests simply is not working. Continually, new cartels pop up, new drug routes appear, and even the most major victories against drug traffickers and producers are temporary. 

When the Mexican government captured Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in 2016 for the third time—he was able to escape the first two due to corruption and lack of proper security—it was undoubtedly a major blow to the Sinaloa Cartel. The effects, however, were so short-term that the Sinaloa Cartel is still able to exert its influence to this day, even though its founder and former leader is gone. Its moment of weakness has really led to little change in the drug trade as a whole. Perhaps its only real, tangible effect was that it allowed for the quick growth of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), one which is far more brutal than the Sinaloa Cartel. The CJNG is accused of cannibalizing people, they’re known to have brought down military helicopters with rocket propelled grenades, to have thrown grenades at a US consulate, and have committed mass murders against civillians, to name a few offenses. Ultimately, even what was believed to be a major victory against drug traffickers in the form of catching “El Chapo” has done little except enable the rise of another, far more militarized and competent, cartel. 

To be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t convict drug lords and I’m certainly not saying we should let them roam free or that we should encourage their actions. Drug traffickers and producers should still be subject to arrest and prosecution. However, the case of “El Chapo” is a part of a larger trend: a trend which indicates that we are not winning, and that we cannot win, through force.

If our main goal in the War on Drugs is the health of our people, which is best ensured through the minimization of illicit drug consumption, decriminalization of all substances might be the best way to achieve as much, having proven more effective in lowering uses of drug usage overall in nations which have employed it. Our current system is so harsh as to utilize imprisonment for mere possession of a substance; however, this often makes little to no difference in encouraging a person to kick a drug habit. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, one in four people who go to jail for substance possession will be rearrested within a year of their release. Clearly, jail time is not the solution. In stark contrast, nations that have adopted decriminalization have been overwhelmingly successful in lowering deaths from overdoses and lowering drug use resulting in prisons being far emptier than they would otherwise be. Portugal, for instance, had its annual number of drug overdose deaths fall by 80 percent over a 16 year period following decriminalization. Their new national rate of overdose deaths, at 5.2 per million, is nearly a fourth of the overall European average. Drug use, despite decriminalization, is reportedly below the European average. The proportion of Portuguese prisoners charged with drug-related crimes fell from 40 percent of the total prior to decriminalization to 15.6 percent due to the lack of inmates convicted of possession. This is obviously an effective system of dealing with a drug epidemic that would prioritize treatment rather than punishment. It’s a system that’s been shown to actually work, not some Nixon-era relic which continually proves to be a failure.

Reform, not punishment, should be the purpose of the government when it comes to drug offenses.  It’s completely unreasonable to expect that the demand for illegal drugs will ever cease completely, but we can work towards ensuring that those who generate the demand might be able to cease contributing to it if they have the proper tools to overcome their issues with usage. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but the data shows an indisputable truth: decriminalization as a system of treatment is more effective than incarceration.