During Election week as tensions grew between political parties, a few states came together- both republican and democratic- to take steps into decriminalizing drugs. For five of these states, this begins with the conversations surrounding the decriminalizing of low quantities of Cannabis as South Dakota, New Jersey, Montana, Mississippi, and Arizona all voted ‘yes’ to laws permitting the use of marijuana for medical purposes. In fact, South Dakota becomes the first state in the United States of America to legalize the use of marijuana for both recreational and medical use with the vote in for the Marijuana Legislation Initiative. Yet surpassing all 5 states in having the most legislative progress regarding the issue of criminalized drugs would be Oregon.
Oregon is the leading state in the nation when discussing substance abuse rates, starting in 2009 when the drug induced deaths in the state exceeded the national average. Although efforts to handling this issue is made evident with the majority state vote deciding to pass Measure 110, which decriminalizes the usage of all drugs including cocaine, heroin, and meth. With the decriminalizing of these noncommercial use drugs, Oregon seeks to target the state’s substance abuse issue from the perspective of one where the legislation around drug addiction enables an environment fostering rehabilitation opportunities rather than criminal persecution and punishment. With the passing of this law in the state of Oregon, criminal charges will no longer be held against those arrested for drug possession or substance abuse, rather the ‘offender’ for said ‘crime’ will be given a citation or punishment similar to a speeding ticket.
As these states overall begin to change their views on the legislation of drugs, the conversation on how the United States has addressed the issue of substance abuse comes into question, invoking the assumption of change in legislation regarding drug criminalization in the nation's future.
Why would we want to decriminalize drugs in the first place?
Even though the decriminalizing of drugs has shown to have a huge impact on the decreasing of substance abuse cases, one may wonder why the issues regarding drug addiction should be a concern that invokes the legal representation of those facing addiction regarding how to refocus the criminalizing of noncommercial substance use. When discussing the matter of addiction, it is likely that the general public views ‘addicts’ as those abusing a substance and generally being violent or ‘unstable’ and often incited due to both conscious and subconscious stereotypes that have been placed on those dealing with addiction. This issue with feeling it unnecessary to represent substance-based cases in the views of the general public stems from the demonizing of substance abusers that takes roots in not only Hollywood, but class and status which are associated to a certain drug. With this, consideration to what the public is actually judging when casting judgment on someone with an addiction must be addressed.
What are people really demonizing, the drug, addiction, or user?
The reality of substance abuse deals with how an addiction can have an overpowering influence on an individual's decision making, that including if they continue using the substance that they had taken before. Yet rarely are substance abuse users portrayed as individuals struggling with an addiction rather than just addicts acting on a whim. The labeling of the individual themselves occurs as the judgment of a person is primarily based on their struggle, as if this issue determined their values, morality, and overall integrity as a human being.
Societal judgments have already been in place disregarding substance abusers as ‘lower’ in society compared to those who aren’t partaking in drugs, dehumanizing the individual in general. This is seen when a reported 73% of people in a study stated they were unwilling to spend one evening with an individual dealing with a drug addiction. Society has learned to disregard substance abusers as ‘junkies’ or other derogatory terms without consideration of the fact that the individual is not fully able to control their habits, as they are dealing with a substance abuse disorder and are not just recklessly behaving on a whim as it is commonly misconceived. Instead of demonizing the actual addiction, people are quick to associate the primary foundations to a substance users' character with the said addiction, thus casting judgment on the individual themselves.
Regarding the actual drug being taken, judgment is seen there too. Despite the perception of addiction overall being mainly negative, a huge contributor to what populations is affected by the labels of what is considered an addiction has to deal with the social class in which a drug is associated with.
Adderall regarding addiction for a ‘high’ rather than medical use in general can be labeled as just a ‘competitive drug’ despite its highly addictive nature. Since this drug is targeted mainly towards college students who can afford to take this drug, the substance user associated with this drug is not as negatively portrayed as ones using drugs with a more negative reputation. For example, a student being caught using Ritalin may be marked for suspension or expelled from their place of study due to the honor code enforced at this school, yet this has no comparison to the prison sentence and label as a convict given to a student caught using heroin.
Despite the addictive nature of both drugs, when in comparison with one another, the difference being seen that dictates the punishment attached to the abuse of said substance has to deal with the social class of the individual targeted and the social connotations associated with each drug. With this being the case, the question of why both demeanors should be punished differently due to conjecture such as a ‘social understanding’ of how that drug works should indicate the long term affects that a user being caught with that substance may have to endure.
A punishment based on only the social acceptance of the substance holds root in classism as well as the absurdity of the ‘public judgments' with dictation of legislative punishment- and how this has no foundation in a structural integrity of what is lawfully good or bad.
Who is impacted by these judgments?
The main issue associated with the criminalizing of drugs is how addiction and over policing of addiction disproportionately impacts Black and Hispanic communities, issues rooting from the War on Drugs started in the 1970s. With the social progression in recognizing the racial biases integrated into the government led initiative, the conversation on ending the racial disparity found in the topic of over policing for substance abuse begins to hold significance in the conversation over legislation regarding the matters.
The disproportionate effect that the criminalizing of drugs has on communities of color can be seen in the incarceration rates relating to drug related issues. The amount Black and Hispanic individuals incarcerated for drug related crimes is drastically high when taking into consideration how much of the nation’s population they make up, this statistic in 2015 being that “black and Hispanic individuals make up 57% of state prisons and almost 77% of federal prisons for drug offenses when they only make up 30 percent of the U. S population” (The Drug Policy Alliance, 2015). While the impact of being incarcerated is continuously prevalent even after one spends time inside of prison, these minority groups are given a major disadvantage when it comes to contributing to the overall prosperity of their communities. This paired with the issues of stereotypes causing others to avoid the topic of over policing and drug criminalization should be considered as it negatively impacts an individual's chances to seeking help for their addiction.
How to know if the Decriminalizing of drugs is a step in the right direction?
As the topic of decriminalizing drugs takes a position in the public conversation of politics, many worry that the decriminalizing of drugs encourages the indulgence of non-commercial drugs without serious consequence. The whole point of the ‘consequence’ of jailtime and imprisonment for drug related offenses should be to prevent the rise of substance abuse cases. Imprisonment itself is a temporary way to stop the issue and in turn causes more long-term issues for the individual labeled as a convict for small possession offenses. Instead, the funding into rehabilitation programs and the accessibility to said opportunities would have not only a long-term effect in countering substance abuse cases but would not dehumanize the ‘addict’ and focus more on the addiction itself.
This is what occurs when the state decriminalized drugs. For example, Measure 110 passed in Oregon not only decriminalizes noncommercial drugs, but states that treatment programs will be funded using money derived from legal cannabis sales, funding for policing (over-policing), and money spent on incarcerating individuals for drug related cases.
The reasoning why criminal punishment is enforced on drugs related cases has to do with how socially accepted the drug is. The first step in truly helping those with addiction must start on how individuals approach the conversation and how educated they are on the actual addictions. With this, efficient progress can be made in rehumanize those dealing with substance abuse and normalizing accessibility to rehabilitation programs.