As COVID-19 continues to rage, another health crisis persists — one that is decades long. The United States reached the tragic milestone of 202 million people in the first year of the pandemic. 100,000 overdose deathsThis represents a 28.5 percent increase over the previous year’s record numbers. Fentanyl is the leading cause demise among Americans aged 18-45. Many of our leaders have reacted by calling for more arrests and criminalization. However, this is not rooted in science but fear. We have spent the past 50 years trying and criminalizing a public issue to address it, but overdose deaths are at record levels. This approach is clearly not working.
The evidence is clear: Criminalization worsens public health outcomes. From the production of the drug supply more dangerousTo deter people from seeking help. fear and stigmaTo deny economic opportunities and support for people with drug arrests, the consequences can be dire. Besides, sending someone to jail or prison doesn’t keep people from using drugs. In fact, drug and alcohol-related deaths have increased more that 600 percent. state prisons between 2001 and 2018.
It’s time for a new approach. Oregon has taken a bold step that should be adopted across the U.S. Decriminalize drug possession and increase access to health services. Since the state decriminalized drug use through a ballot initiative (Measure 110), only 10% of the population has been affected. allotted fundingOregon has distributed this grant to 70 community-based agencies so far. Oregon has already been in a position to provide peer support, harm minimization, evidence-based treatment and housing assistance to more than 70 individuals. 16,000 people.
Oregon was not able to pass this measure before it was passed. ranked last in accessTreatment and Recovery Services
Yet, many local media outlets have focused on the absence of citations from police for drug possession since the passage decriminalization. (Under Measure 110 people who are found to be in possession of small amounts all drugs get a citation and a $100 fine, instead of being arrested. This is a distraction, and the wrong way to measure the program’s success.
In fact, decriminalization efforts shouldn’t involve police. People who use drugs often suffer from police involvement. The criminal justice system has made drug use more prevalent, resulting in mass incarceration and family splits. It has also left people with criminal records that can limit their ability to obtain housing, employment, and live full and happy lives. Public officials have been able to ignore their responsibility to support people and instead inflate the police departments to become military-style units while constantly reducing access to the health and support services people need. Even police officers will admit that their options for responding are limited and that a new set of tools is needed. Thousands of drug arrests for harmful purposes have been avoided since Oregon decriminalized.
Some call Oregon’s efforts an “experiment,” but they are already grounded in evidence: They’re largely based on the successful model adopted in Portugal over 20 years ago. Within a few years of implementation decriminalization in PortugalWhile overdose deaths, HIV infections and incarceration for drug-related crimes plummeted, people who chose to enter treatment voluntarily increased in number. Portugal is not an exception. Other countries, such as Switzerland or the Czech Republic, have also implemented decriminalization in varying degrees with similar success.
It’s simple logic. People are more likely to seek out health services if they have access to them and don’t fear being arrested if they do. And if we address the full range of people’s needs — including harm reduction services, housing and even job assistance — versus just mandating abstinence, we are able to actually get people on solid footing and better address the underlying factors that contribute to chaotic drug use. We’ve seen this in Portugal and are getting a glimpse of it in Oregon.
Even though Oregon’s move is a huge step forward, there remains more work to do, such as removing quantity thresholds and police altogether, inclusion of expungement and resentencing for past drug arrests and convictions, and ensuring access to things like overdose prevention centers and safe supply. As we work to decriminalize drugs in other states and federally, these additional provisions, such as increasing the amount of drugs that would qualify as personal possession — should be strongly considered, in order to truly embrace the public health alternative this is meant to be.
A majority of people desire to see decriminalization. According to the most recent polling, 66 percent of Americans supportEliminating criminal penalties for drug possession and investing to improve health services. While Oregon may be the first in the U.S., it certainly won’t be the last. Since the passage of this measure, we have seen more. half a dozen other statesAnd CongressIntroduce legislation to make drug possession illegal.
Amid the twin crises of overdose and criminalization, we owe ourselves and our communities a different approach — one that empowers people to live healthy and free lives. This is possible by decriminalizing drugs and ensuring that access to care is available.