A Case Study and a New Hope for American Drug Policy

By Nico Aldape

Drug policy exists at the intersection of health and criminal justice policy. To put it simply, the United States’ handling of policy concerning both illegal and legal drugs leaves a lot to be desired.

The countries succeeding in combating the terrible consequences of drug addiction took note of expertise showing that public policy strategies prizing harm reduction and rehabilitation work better than incarceration. The public policy and health strategy of Portugal stands out as a global success story. A 2009 case study by the Cato Institute found that the drug policies of Portugal, which were first enacted in 2000 and entailed decriminalization for less than ten day’s supply of the drug, had no adverse effects on use or addiction rates. In fact, between 2001 and 2006, lifetime usage of any illegal drug by those in seventh to ninth grade dropped 3.5 percent. Drug related deaths due to heroin and related drugs decreased more than 50 percent, and new HIV infections fell 17 percent between 1999 and 2003.

And in case you’re curious, here’s what’s going on in Estonia

According to a 2010 report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 1.5 million of the United States’ then 2.3 million inmates were suffering from substance abuse and addiction. When applied to those struggling with drug addictions, assuming prisoners cease all criminal or illegal activity in prison (which any rational person would admit is a fallacy) only lets their addictions fester instead of connecting them with the medical help they need. Even for the most dangerous of drugs (the unholy triumvirate of heroin, cocaine, and meth, the first of which is causing an epidemic), putting people in jail for a documented medical illness isn’t just bad policy, it’s just immoral.

Though wound down slightly under the Obama administration, policy vestiges of the War on Drugs remain on the books – and ineffective. According to a 2015 Washington Post article, since 2011, the amount of marijuana seized at the border has plummeted by 37 percent. While this statistic may sound good (and make Border Patrol’s lives easier), as increasing quality of product in both legal and illegal marijuana markets has replaced the cheaper, lower-quality Mexican mota, the bigger picture and surrounding statistics show it’s really no rose garden. Since 2009, seizures of meth and heroin have gone the opposite direction from marijuana, and in staggeringly higher magnitudes. For heroin, seizures at the border increased threefold. For meth, fivefold. Heroin, a drug often used by those who became addicted to oxycodone, is $10 a hit as opposed to $80 a pill. But marijuana’s the gateway drug listed as Schedule I (high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use, lack of accepted safety for use even under medical supervision)? “Decriminalization” actually stops people of color from being harassed and arrested for it? Addiction stops in prison? Am I hearing all this right? I must be on drugs.

Green is legalized cannabis, purple is legal medical cannabis, cyan is decriminalized possession, and grey is total prohibition

What works in the case study of Portugal (or in the Netherlands, which has pursued and enacted similar policy) may not work here. I do not call for the exact same strategy as these countries. We have states that vary more territorially and politically than do many countries. This task will not be easy. It will require a multifaceted, fundamental shift in political strategy and a societal shift in the way we think about drugs and an end to negative stereotypes. The struggle of an impoverished sex worker addicted to cocaine is just as worthy to address as the struggle of a suburban youth who can’t go a day without oxycodone. Neither one of them deserves to be told “it’s your fault;” both of them deserve medical attention. Though the strategy the United States needs isn’t fully fleshed out yet, what can be said for certain is that the status quo does neither one of those people, nor society as a whole, much justice.

Nico Aldape is a second-year in the College. He is from New York, NY.

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