Drug Awareness: Legalization vs. Decriminalization

In my personal experience I’ve had a lot of people confuse the terms legalization and decriminalization. I wanted to finish my Drug Awarenessthread with a short explanation of the two, the benefits and the disadvantages, and to talk about some countries as examples.

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Legalization

As the word suggests, legalization means legalizing an illicit substance. It might be only one drug, or all of them. When a drug becomes legal, it becomes available to everyone within that city/state/country.

Pros

If drugs became legal they would become more controlled. The war on drugs does nothing but make illicit substances more expensive, and supports the drug dealers and their industry. If we legalize drugs, we would take away the profit these drug barons receive, and the price of drugs would drastically fall. Drug sales would be regulated, just like alcohol and tobacco, and safe places would be set up where high quality drugs would be sold, minimizing any potential risks from synthetic or impure drugs. Selling to minors should still be illegal, just like with alcohol and tobacco. In the current world there’s cities that live at the mercy of drug dealers, and legalizing drugs would free these people from such horrible lives. Drugs which are fatal or very harmful, like crack cocaine, should still be illegal, but if other drugs became legal then the demand for crack cocaine would fall. Legalization might not be able to change the world, but at least it’s possible to end the drug world violence. With the money gained from drug businesses, there could be counter businesses set up, where drug treatment programs for all drug abusers would be available. It would be possible to educate children about all of the drugs, just like about nicotine and tobacco. Drug abuse would likely reduce due to the drug awareness rising, and the romanticized idea of a forbidden fruit disappearing. It’s also important to consider that crack cocaine was created since cocaine was too expensive for a large quantity of people. It’s possible that if cocaine was legal and thus cheaper, the market for crack cocaine would never exist. Crack cocaine, PCP, and similar drugs should stay illegal, but by legalizing other “pure” drugs the appeal of other types of drugs would fall. It’s not drug addicts that are ruining the country, it’s the drug dealers. Right now the real criminals are in charge, and by taking away this power from them we restore the balance in the world. Legalization would make that possible.

Cons

If drugs become legal, the amount of drug abusers would increase. It’s simply immoral to make drugs legal and make them available to everyone so they can easily ruin their lives. When Britain allowed physicians to prescribe heroin to registered addicts, the numbers of heroin rose five-fold. Medical abuse also rose, and a new drug culture was born. Even though a lot of drug addicts look for treatment to break their dependence, and making them legal would make it more socially acceptable for them to seek out treatment, the chance of these drug abusers to avoid relapse shrinks. Usually drug abusers don’t have long-term commitment toward drug treatment, and making drugs so available with legalization would simply mean anyone could buy it on a “bad day” and relapse. How would it be possible to communicate to children that drugs are bad? Nicotine is directly related to cancer so it’s easier for them to understand that it’s bad, but they wouldn’t listen as well if they were told that cocaine has long-term effects on their brains and make them less productive. If the adults around them are doing it, they would also think it’s acceptable for them. Saying that legalizing drugs would take away the romanticized idea of a forbidden fruit is incorrect, since it ignores the simple psychological allure to drugs. People don’t do them since they’re illegal, they do them because they feel good when they’re high. Cocaine is not popular because of rebellion, it’s popular because of the effects. Legalizing drugs would only encourage the development of more dangerous drugs in the future. New funds can be allocated for drug abuse treatments and research without legalizing these drugs. There needs to be a more balanced program instead of a completely new one. Most citizens recognize that legalization would only lead to more drug use, making a bad situation even worse.

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Decriminalization

Decriminalization is simply removing or reducing the criminal classification of drugs while still having it under some form of regulation. This means that drugs will not be sold in your nearby deli, but if you’re caught with a small amount of drugs you will not be sent to jail. The pros and cons are very similar to legalization of drugs, though not as extreme.

Pros

By decriminalizing drugs, the addiction and substance abuse rates go down. Now instead of jailing drug abusers, they are being treated, and the cost of treatment becomes lower and the chances of recovery are higher. If people are jailed for simply possessing drugs it goes on their record as a felony, and it is much harder for them to find meaningful employment after jail. If they underwent treatment instead, it would be more socially acceptable, and they would go back into the community without being called a felon. Addiction would treated as a disease instead of a legal problem, and non-drug users wouldn’t be as quick to condemn others. Unlike legalization, under decriminalization selling and distributing the drug would still count as a criminal offense. This way the drug dealing business would be punishable by law, but being a victim of drug dependence wouldn’t. Decriminalization would treat drug abuse as a social problem instead of a legal one, and the secretive pursue of drugs due to the guilt and shame of the addiction would disappear. People who are so ashamed of their drug problems often fail to get help. By decriminalizing drugs we would help people who have a problem while keeping the real criminals, drug lords, as felons.

Cons

By decriminalizing drugs, the encouragement to experiment with drugs rises. By allowing people to have open access to drugs creates an atmosphere where experimentation becomes encouraged. By removing such legal barriers to prevent drug access, the drug supply rises, while lowering the prices. Since the prices become lower, drugs become accessible to more people. Decriminalization would encourage more people to try drugs by becoming more accessible. Some drugs one require one dose to become addictive or life-threatening. Even though the cost of treatment would go down, the cost of treating addictions would rise due to the increased demand. Now that more people are doing drugs and getting addicted, more time and money is put into treatment, which might actually make treatment more expensive. Even though alcohol is the primary contributor to violence, drugs would become more accessible and might get mixed with alcohol, worsening the effects or even becoming life threatening.

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Portugal

Portugal is the most drug-liberal country in the world. Portugal decriminalized the possession of small quantities of any drug in 2001. Now rather than being arrested, people caught with a small supply were given a small fine, a warning, or told to appear before a local commission – a doctor, lawyer, and social worker – regarding the treatment, harm reduction, and the support services available. The drug crisis, mainly related to heroin, dropped. HIV and Hepatitis due to the syringes went from an all-time high in 2000 of 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million in 2015. Overdose death, drug-related crime, and incarceration rates also dropped with this change, and people slowly stopped abusing opiates. Their policy of decriminalization made is much easier for a broad range of services, health, psychiatry, employment and more, to work together more effectively and serve their communities. With the shift in the legal changes there was a change in the language, people who were referred to as drogados, or junkies, were now referred to as “people with addiction disorders,” making it more acceptable to the society. Drug use didn’t disappear, but it was reduced drastically.

If you look at the graph below, you’ll see that drug induced deaths in Portugal declined overtime since decriminalization in 2001. This means that now that people were able to speak about their problems, they were able to get help. People were educated enough not to overdose and the supply of clean syringes grew.

Compare Portugal to other countries in the graph below. It’s easy to see how much progress was achieved due to decriminalization, and how it compares to other countries. USA has currently the highest amount of drug induced deaths per million in the world, 185, comparing to Portugal with only 6. As “alien” this idea might seem to USA, maybe it’s time to change since the progress in Portugal is so vivid.

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Drug Policies in Other Countries

Across Europe, 14 countries adapted various forms of decriminalization models for the medical of recreational sale of cannabis.

In 2013, Uruguay became the first nation to make it legal to grow, consume, and sell cannabis.

23 US states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana for medical purposes. Washington was the first state to permit the recreational use of the plant in 2013 despite a federal ban. Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia soon followed.

Canada is on the way to enacting similar laws regarding cannabis for medical and recreational use.

Even though no other country, other than Portugal, has adopted any laws regarding drugs other than cannabis, there’s still hope that the rest of the world will soon follow. The progress and the positive sides of decriminalization are so evident that its surprising no one else has done it. This might be just one example, but we can’t know what will happen unless we try. We learn through trial and error, and Portugal achieved amazing results by taking such a huge risk.

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Everyone has the right to have their opinion regarding drug policies, and everyone should be aware of both the good and the bad sides of legalization or decriminalization. The purpose of this blog post and the Drug Awareness thread was to raise awareness regarding different drugs and the ways to fight the problem of drug abuse. Hopefully it was informative, and fun to read.

Stay tuned for my next thread regarding Feminism.

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Graphs and Citations:

Gray, James P. (2001) Why our drug laws has failed and what we can do about it. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Levinthal, Charles F. (2003) Point/Counterpoint : Opposing perspectives on issues of drug policy. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Goldstein, Avram (2001). Addiction: From biology to drug policy (2nd ed.) New York: Oxford University Press.

“16 Decriminalization of Drugs Pros and Cons.” Vittana.org, 25 Jan. 2018, vittana.org/16-decriminalization-of-drugs-pros-and-cons.

Levinthal, Charles F. Drugs, Society, and Criminal Justice. Pearson, 2016.

Zeeshanaleem. “14 Years After Decriminalizing All Drugs, Here’s What Portugal Looks Like.” Mic, Mic Network Inc., 4 Oct. 2016, mic.com/articles/110344/14-years-after-portugal-decriminalized-all-drugs-here-s-what-s-happening#.Z3fBIDqf9.

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