Let’s All Agree To Decriminalize Hard Drugs, Ok?


Via Benjamin Powell for The Hill

On July 6th, the Oregon legislature voted to decriminalize cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, oxycodone, LSD, and ecstasy. While reform of prohibitions on both medical and recreational use of marijuana has gained popularity in states across the country, most people remain skeptical of the benefits of reducing or eliminating criminal penalties for harder drugs. Yet, rolling back prohibitions on harder drugs is likely to bring greater benefits than those produced by the relaxation of marijuana prohibitions precisely because the harder drugs are more dangerous.

Oregon House Bill 2355, which would become state law if Governor Kate Brown signs it as expected, decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of the drugs for people who do not have more than two prior drug convictions or any felony convictions. If it becomes law, Oregon will become the first state to decriminalize these hard drugs.

In 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and, in 2015, it became the 4th state to legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational use. Today, eight states and the District of Colombia have legalized recreational use and most states have passed some version of decriminalization or removed prohibitions on the use of medical marijuana.

Although reform efforts related to marijuana prohibition continue to gain support, little momentum has been gained for the removal or reduction of criminal penalties for other hard illicit drugs. However, at least one major problem exacerbated by prohibition is even more pronounced for these harder drugs than it is for marijuana.

America’s drug war has been failing for years. The demand for most drugs is not very price sensitive because people dependent on drugs continue to buy even as prices rise.  As a result, the predominantly supply-side war drives up prices and does little to decrease consumption. Meanwhile, illegality makes the potency of the drugs less predictable.

When drugs are illegal, there is, by definition, no legal supply chain that can be held accountable for the drug’s quality. Producers in legal markets who provide inferior products harm their reputation or confront the possibility of legal action. These safeguards are absent in illegal markets.

Poor-quality marijuana might disappoint its user, but it typically isn’t particularly dangerous. Harder drugs pose significantly greater risks to users as a result of the introduction of impurities. Prohibition increases the risk that drugs will be confiscated while they are being transported. So, illegality encourages high potency to maximize the narcotic to weight and size ratio and reduce the risk of detection associated with smuggling.

Retail suppliers then reduce potency by cutting the product. But they often cut the product with inexpensive but dangerous ingredients or in ways the leave the final dosage unknown to users precisely because consumers lack reliable information and any recourse.

As a result of a drug war that does little to decrease consumption but makes drugs more dangerous. From 1971 — two years before the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration – to 2007, the rate of death from a drug overdose per 100,000 total deaths increased by a factor of ten. And that spike occurred even before the recent surge in deaths from prescription opioids whose doses and contents users know.

Rather than sticking with failed federal prohibitions, Oregon’s law would follow a model closer to Portugal. In addition to offering treatment programs, Portugal decriminalized the possession of a 10-day supply of any drug – including hard drugs – in 2000.

Contrary to fears, Portuguese drug use did not explode. The number of overall drug users fell during the first fifteen years of decriminalization and ebbs and flows with European trends now. The number of heroin addicts was cut in half, with most remaining addicts in a form of treatment. Meanwhile, drug overdose rates have fallen and Portugal’s overall drug-induced death rate is more than five times lower than the European Union average.

Cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and ecstasy are all more dangerous than marijuana. But prohibition makes these dangerous drugs even more dangerous. Oregon’s decriminalization bill is an important step in the right direction. Hopefully their decriminalization will start a new national trend much like their marijuana decriminalization did.



7 thoughts on “Let’s All Agree To Decriminalize Hard Drugs, Ok?

  1. Drug abuse is a mental health issue. Declaring mental illness a criminal offense is itself an insane thing to do. Which is why the one hundred year “war on drugs” has caused so much Human suffering.

  2. Most often, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy and marijuana, don’t kill. Drug dealers, deadly counterfeit drugs bought on the black market, and murders caused by addicts forced to find money to pay for illegal drugs at exorbitant prices do kill. Like Powell writes: “… prohibition makes these dangerous drugs even more dangerous.” Want to save lives? Save taxpayers a ton of money? Help rehab drug addicts? Pass laws like Oregon House Bill 2355 around the country.

  3. Of course they should be decriminalized for all the practical reasons listed above, but more importantly for respect of the moral absolutes that always seem to get lost in these conversations.

    MOST importantly, however, is why TH is pushing this article? What’s going to happen to his margins if the nation moves toward legalization?! Or is TH clever (of course he is) and already has his permit secured to enter new legal blue crystal markets?

    Margin and a sense of danger vs scale, quality, and reduced paranoia.


  4. Agreed. This is a good idea, especially for young people that are so very much exposed to every kind of drug. They should be given a few chances to reform before we throw them in the prison system. Punishment should ramp up slowly, and not be a cliff.

  5. I think the advent of recreational Carfentanil is the death knell of the War on Drugs. It has pushed drug users to import what is essentially powdered nerve gas. Chemistry can be iterated faster than the DEA can keep up and it only gets deadlier from here. We have drug bans to thank for K2, Bath Salts and Carfentanil which do far more harm and given their novel chemistry avoided detection for quite a while, this is a path that never ends. You cannot ban physical science so a drug ban is inherently idiotic. Everything from here on out will be a futile struggle for survival for the DEA as it is an organization without a justification. Double down on failed policies and practices until the harm is so readily apparent to voters that they cannot stomach it any longer.

  6. The problem is not in the demand for drugs, despite the government telling everyone it is and saying they need to stop people from using. It’s in the artificially and severely curtailed supply by not just governments around the world, but by the world government, UN body, called the International Narcotics Control Board. It sets policy at the world government level- dictated primarily by the US- and everyone else has to fall in line. Bills like this one only solve part of the problem. The gangs, cartels, brutal violence and adulterated drug deaths will continue, regardless, so long as supply is severely curtailed, leading to prices at great premiums to what they would be without it. The artificially high prices- with no civil remedy for the sellers which operate in a black market- create perverse incentive to murder for market share, adulterate their product, and corrupt government for their protection, among many other things. Unless drugs are completely deregulated on both the demand *and* supply sides, the great tragedy of the War on Drugs will continue.

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