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Eliminating Low Level Drug Offense Prosecutions

Throughout 2020, we’ve been introduced to some bizarre drug laws that have passed in the elections. However, some of these may cause some drastic changes when they’re implemented. One such state, New Jersey, joined the union to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Four other states also passed legislation to legalize the drug. The one that shocked us the most was Oregon, in which voters pushed drug decriminalization and removed low-level drug offenses from being prosecuted.

Measure 110, as it’s known in Oregon, marked a radical change in how the state plans to battle substance use and overdoses statewide. By eliminating low-level drug offense prosecutions, will this help or hurt those struggling with addiction? Please take a moment to learn more about the possible effects caused by drug decriminalization and what eliminating these prosecutions might mean for you.

What is Drug Decriminalization?

Drug decriminalization refers to removing criminal penalties for the personal use of illicit drugs. The most common application is for marijuana, which is decriminalized in more than half of the states throughout the country. 

Decriminalization isn’t considered legalization for the targeted drugs; it removes criminal penalties when charging drug offenders. For example, in states that marijuana is deemed illegal but decriminalized, it means that a person will be fined and face no jail time. Instead of treating these offenses like robberies, they’re looked at more like a traffic ticket.

However, decriminalization doesn’t apply to drug manufacturers or dealers. In this face, dealers and manufacturers will likely face criminal charges in states where drugs are decriminalized. Criminal charges will not target problem users with substance use disorders (SUDs) that get caught with drugs they use personally. 

Drug decriminalization is typically viewed as a way to change the laws created by the War on Drugs. 

Did The War on Drugs Accomplish Anything?

The war on drugs is considered a political and social movement involving harsh penalties relating to drug offenses. Despite the War on Drugs starting in the 1970s, it’s rooted in alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. Local and federal governments could see how drugs were causing public health problems and sought ways to address the issue by banning drugs. Although the War on Drugs was initiated to address these public health issues, it was unintended, and in some cases, with devastating effects.

The U.S.’s primary method against the drug trade was going after the individuals who supplied these substances. Unfortunately, police face the laws of supply and demand, making it challenging to stop illegal drug trading. Whenever a regulation or law eradicates a supply source, demand will grow, as will the incentive for a person to form a supply source and earn money. 

The War on Drugs has also penalized drug users under the impression harsher penalties would serve as a deterrent to using drugs. The National Institute of Justice said that harsher penalties and prison time aren’t effective means of stopping drug use, especially when drug users believe they can’t be caught. 

Despite The War on Drugs starting in the 70s, cocaine use exploded to epidemic levels in the 80s. The drug problem began causing public health issues, and politicians decided being tough on drugs and crime would be a campaign point. Although prison doesn’t deter drug use, it caused the U.S. prison population to balloon in size. At one point, one-quarter of the prison population worldwide was in the United States. 

The War on Drugs also caused judges to impose minimum sentences for drug-related crimes. A minimum sentence is the least amount of time someone has to spend in prison before they’re eligible to be released. 

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What are Low-Level Drug Offenses?

A low-level drug offense is a simple drug-related crime, such as possession of drugs or paraphernalia. The violations are typically tied to personal drug use and aren’t considered violent or sales related. Despite it being a minor offense, it makes up a vast portion of the U.S. prison population. An estimated 300,000 people are currently sitting in a prison cell for drug-related crimes in the country. Even worse, they’re spending more time in prison than in the past. 

Low-level offenders have also been exposed to lengthy prison stays due to sentencing laws. The laws were designed to take down high-level offenders like importers and drug traffickers, but these individuals make up only 11 percent of the country’s drug offenders.

What Happens if Drugs are Decriminalized?

The hope was drug decriminalization would eliminate low-level drug offenses and criminal prosecution. A majority of those serving time for drug-related crimes only possessed small amounts of an illicit drug or paraphernalia. Oregon is the first state to implement this on a broad scale, and drug offenses will only incur a fine instead of prison. Those who backed decriminalization describe a huge burden being taken off the criminal justice system since it won’t have to worry about petty crimes.  The intention is to save money on prosecuting, processing, and incarcerating those for drug offenses. 

Person smoking marijuana, a low level drug offense.

Decriminalization means that drug users will not spend time in jail or earn a criminal record for possessing a substance. Those with substance use disorders can be harmed by prison and their criminal record. If someone gets sober and decides to look for work and be denied, it may be an excuse to start using again. It increases the chances of a fatal overdose for a person struggling with addiction.

One hope is that decriminalization will stop the enforcement of drug laws against minorities. Although whites are more likely to use and sell drugs, black people are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for possession and 3.6 times more likely for selling. Decriminalization probably won’t address the disparity when it comes to selling drugs, but it may help bridge a gap for possession. 

Is This Going to Help the Addiction Epidemic or make it Worse?

Many people in the United States face the harsh reality of a prison cell because of their substance use problem. By eliminating criminal prosecution of low-level drug offenders, it can help lower the prison population in the United States and ease the financial burden taxpayers, and the criminal justice system incurs.

Those who oppose decriminalization describe that it removes the deterrent to use these drugs, despite no evidence existing to back up their theory. Despite their beliefs, trafficking, manufacturing, and dealing will still be prosecuted to the fullest extent.

Despite how it sounds, it may help those struggling with substance abuse problems, especially those who could be unfairly targeted by stringent drug laws. Oregon made a provision for drug treatment in low-level drug offenses, which will be funded by marijuana taxes.

If other states in the union join in and pass similar policies, it may provide a difference in how we fight against substance use disorders.

Sources

American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Is Addiction? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction

Ballotpedia. (2020). Oregon Measure 110, Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative (2020). Retrieved from https://ballotpedia.org/Oregon_Measure_110,_Drug_Decriminalization_and_Addiction_Treatment_Initiative_(2020)

National Institute of Justice. (2016, June 05). Five Things About Deterrence. Retrieved from https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/five-things-about-deterrence

The PEW Charitable Trusts. (2018, March 08). More Imprisonment Does Not Reduce State Drug Problems. Retrieved from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2018/03/more-imprisonment-does-not-reduce-state-drug-problems

Rothwell, J. (2016, July 29). How the War on Drugs Damages Black Social Mobility. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2014/09/30/how-the-war-on-drugs-damages-black-social-mobility/

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