Decriminalize personal drug use

The War on Drugs is an easy punching bag. It has been nearly half a century since President Nixon declared the crackdown, and there’s nothing but misery to show for it. Almost $1 trillion in costs, the world’s largest incarcerated population, racially-charged enforcement and systematic trampling of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unwarranted search and seizure. Yet, drug use in this country is undefeated. Marijuana laws have been liberalized, to varying degrees, in most states despite inaction at the federal level. Epidemics of drug abuse, such as the estimated 11 million people misusing prescription opioids, persist as pharmaceutical companies and drug traffickers grow wealthier every day.

Graphic by Jian Bautista.

The War on Drugs will never succeed because it is, at its core, focused on demand. It’s wildly punitive nature was conceived at the beginning, as Nixon sought to subjugate the hippie and minority voting blocs that were less likely to re-elect him. Politicians after him found drug enforcement to be a useful political tool as well, either for looking tough or building a wall on the border with Mexico. Drug use has long been maligned in American political culture, which is best described as an unlikely blend of personal liberty and behavioral puritanism.

But while contemporary reformists have criticized the War on Drugs, few are proposing creative solutions. That’s where we need to interrogate the fundamentals of drug enforcement. Why is personal drug use scandalous? Safely altering your mind can be fun, sexy and enlightening. Why are we arbitrarily choosey with what drugs we allow? Addiction clearly isn’t the measure, since cigarettes and alcohol cause plenty of that. Why is criminalization the default method? If we wish to help someone in need, ruining their life with prosecution and incarceration isn’t particularly thoughtful.

If we are to be a society that values personal liberty, then we need to recognize that every individual has the right to consciously do whatever they please with their own property. That includes your body and whatever you put inside of it. The only exceptions are actions that could harm others, such as driving while inebriated, or sharing drugs with people who cannot rationally consent, such as children.

Decriminalizing personal drug use requires two clarifications. First, we distinguish between drug use and drug abuse and respond accordingly. Second, we liberalize the personal demand for drugs before considering the supply of them.

Drug use is consensual, recreational and safe. Drug abuse is addictive, compulsory and dangerous. Both should be legal but warrant different responses from the community at large. Distinguishing between use and abuse requires science-driven risk assessment on each drug, as well as evaluating the behavior of an individual.

Research has found that depressants like cannabis and hallucinogens like psilocybin, colloquially known as “magic mushrooms,” rank among the safest illicit drugs. Scientists at the John Hopkins University conducted a year-long study that experimented with varying doses of psilocybin and found that the potential for adverse effects during drug use is correlated with the organ toxicity of a drug, as well as the quantity consumed. In other words, users can maximize safety by avoiding excessive doses and choosing drugs that are non-toxic to human organs. That seems obvious in theory, but our laws have yet to reflect the reality of safe drugs. The federal government still classifies cannabis and psilocybin alongside heroin in Schedule I, the most dangerous category of drugs.

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Decriminalizing safe drugs is easier for people to get behind. But we shouldn’t stop there. We need to decriminalize the consumption of unsafe drugs as well. This requires sympathy and creativity.

For example, heroin is a thoroughly vile drug. There is no safe dosage for it, and it is highly addictive and lethal. Few people need convincing of that. But they do need convincing on why busting homeless heroin users in a police raid doesn’t do much to help those people. Law enforcement can rough them up, levy fines that they won’t pay, slap a felony on their record and even incarcerate them in a prison full of actually violent criminals. Yet, recidivism remains high and users frequently relapse into their addictions.

The problem is that we are treating users of unsafe drugs as criminals when we should be treating them as patients. They need to be helped, not punished. Safehouse, a non-profit in Philadelphia, is attempting to be the first in the nation to make good on this philosophy. They are trying to open a drug injection site in the city, where addicts can use illicit substances in a controlled environment. Instead of police, there are medical professionals on site to provide sterilized paraphernalia, prevent and treat overdose, dispose of the used paraphernalia and connect users to rehabilitation options. The benefits of supervised consumption include a reduction in needle-sharing, saving lives via overdose reversal, educating patients on safer drug use and voluntary rehabilitation.

If Safehouse is successful, then other cities should use it as a model for opening their own drug injection sites. Unfortunately, federal prosecutors are currently suing to prevent the opening of Safehouse. Cities and states will need to take a tougher stance in resisting federal overreach.

Decriminalizing personal drug use is a policy concerning the consumption of drugs, not the sale of them. Many people assume that decriminalization has to immediately involve both the supply and the demand for a drug. That is not the case. For example, Portugal was the first country to decriminalize the possession and consumption of all drugs. They did so without changing the sale and manufacture of drugs.

We should copy Portugal’s process. This helps prevent the threat of turning harmful drug dealers into legal businessmen overnight since their financial incentive is to increase addiction rates. After decriminalizing possession and consumption, the public can gradually consider legalizing the manufacture and sale of certain drugs based on scientifically-supported risk assessment and local factors.