Three Ways Drug Possession Decriminalization Fights Addiction

From crack in the 1980 and 90s to the opioid epidemic currently ripping across the nation, the United States has struggled to effectively deal with drug abuse on a national scale. Other nations have fared better. Portugal has led the way in decreasing overall substance abuse by decriminalizing possession and focusing on treatment. Any serious public health advocate must at least consider decriminalization as an appropriate intervention. Here are three reasons why the United States should look hard at Portugal’s policies and consider a decriminalization strategy that places public health over punishing addicts.

  1. Stigma surrounding addiction decreases. One major barrier to addicts seeking help is shame. Considered a crime or a lack of moral fortitude, addiction to drugs is often associated with negative traits like laziness, cruelty and delinquency. But addiction is not a choice or a moral failing; it is a learned set of behaviors that have been hard wired into the brain, directing the addict to pursue one goal: obtaining and using his/her drug of choice. Stigmatizing addiction through criminalization only makes it harder for people to get help when they most need it. Instead of being penalized with prison, addiction needs to be seen for what it is, a treatable mental health condition.
  1. Communities are safer. Currently it’s a crime to have any amount of most drugs in your possession. Theft, fraud, drug sales, prostitution, or other criminal activities are also often how addicts support their habit. However, if drugs were decriminalized, addicts could seek help instead of being forced into a situation where they are punished for being in the grip of a medical disorder, either through possession or criminal acts to support their habit. More treatment means fewer addicts burglarizing and robbing to maintain their addiction and decriminalization frees up police to pursue other activities.
  1. Treatment is ready when you need it. Given the epidemic proportions at which the opioid crisis is affecting and killing Americans, whatever intervention our country chooses must be far-reaching. To decriminalize possession of all or almost all drugs on a federal level would create a sweeping change across the country. States could tailor their programs to meet their population’s specific needs. This could mean creating harm reduction programs like needle exchanges or specialized treatment or prevention activities for youths; these are decisions for localities. All areas of the nation need to improve access to quality addiction treatment. Ensuring everyone can access treatment will improve treatment outcomes. Currently, some individuals have no access to care anywhere in their local area, preventing them from getting the support they need. Channeling funds from incarceration to treatment would alleviate a great deal of this problem.

Decriminalizing drug possession and providing greater funding for evidence-based treatment in every part of the nation would improve our communities, making them healthier and safer, and would avoid untold numbers of preventable deaths. Decriminalizing drug possession nationally should be an option that policy makers at least consider as we fight this nation’s opioid epidemic.