With Oregon historically becoming the first state in the nation to officially decriminalize the possession and personal use of all drugs, the answer to the question of if Washington state should follow suit is simple – absolutely.
Measure 110, a ballot initiative funded by the Drug Policy Alliance, was passed in Oregon on Nov. 3, 2020. With Measure 110 being made official, possessing heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and other drugs for personal use is no longer a criminal offense in Oregon.
The act of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs serves as a huge step in the right direction after President Richard Nixon announced drugs to be public enemy number one in 1971, launching the War on drugs campaign that continues today. The War on drugs is inhumane to the American people, as it focuses on punishing victims of addiction who actually need help.
Drug addiction is a major symptom of trauma and mental illness in people throughout the world. Rather than providing care for suffering Americans, the U.S. has decided to criminalize and significantly profit from it instead.
The U.S. has the world’s largest private prison population and, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, U.S. law enforcement arrests about 1.5 million people each year for drug law violations, with more than 80% of those arrests being for simple drug possession without the intent to sell.
The criminalization of drugs also adds to the institutionalized racism that runs rampant in the criminal justice system. The Cato Institute shows in the most recent data from 2018, Black citizens made up only 13% of the U.S. population but accounted for 28% of all drug‐related arrests. This leads to the racially motivated over-policing of Black neighborhoods where residents have been unfairly arrested and jailed more than White populated neighborhoods. Additionally, drug arrests have been used to deport people who’ve immigrated to the U.S. whether or not they’re legal citizens, adding to U.S. detention centers.
Measure 110 shifts the focus of the response to possession of small amounts of drugs to providing treatment through newly funded recovery centers. Violations of small amounts of drug possession now include small fines or court-ordered therapy. This response method provides the proper care required for handling victims of drug addiction.
It’s understandable to believe that decriminalization might increase the use of drugs with the more severe punishments being taken away, however, looking at countries that have followed along with decriminalization of drugs proves this false. Portugal decriminalized all possession of drugs for personal use in 2001 and has since seen a decline in drug use from citizens age 15 to 24, along with rates of continuation of drug use, according to the Transform Drug Policy Foundation.
No country should ever criminalize and profit from the suffering of its people, and the act of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs provides the treatment the U.S. desperately needs for its citizens to thrive.
Following the enacted decriminalization of small amounts of drugs on Feb. 1 in Oregon, Washington state shouldn’t become the second state in the U.S. to implement measures or pass bills that may increase societal issues surrounding the possession of hard drugs.
Election voters passed the Oregon bill by a 17 point margin, setting the stage for a possible domino effect throughout the U.S. similar to the legalization of recreational marijuana.
The Washington state Supreme Court declared the state’s current possession of a controlled substance felony unconstitutional at a hearing on Feb. 25, a possible stepping stone for further advancements on changing laws against drugs. While RCW 69.50.4013 should be altered, it shouldn’t be denounced completely as lawmakers can specify the necessity of proof as a prosecution requirement, a circumstance where the possibility of innocence is taken seriously.
Despite the argument that the main focus of Measure 110 would be addiction treatment from funds originally used for incarceration, it raises concerns that decriminalization would make drugs more accessible to the public, and in turn make drugs more accessible to teenagers and children. The measure was introduced by a non-profit organization called Drug Policy Alliance, which aims to end the War on drugs through legalization and prioritizing health concerns over punishment.
On the surface this idea seems beneficial, though there may be long-lasting implications on homeless populations and youths that may become increasingly exposed to drug abuse. Without a harsh penalty, this could lead to the normalization of hard drugs like methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine as people become more comfortable possessing substances than before. Drugs are destructive to human health and the livelihoods of individuals when they prioritize substance abuse over careers or education, therefore implementing preventive measures to protect our communities is necessary.
Washington’s Supreme Court ruled the felony drug law was unconstitutional by a 5-4 decision due to wrongful convictions for non-intentional possession. Advancements are in the hands of state lawmakers who should rewrite sections in future legislative terms for the sake of public health.
Even receiving treatment sometimes won’t stop relapse. For frequent reoffenders, incarceration may be the only alternative to living with drug addiction, not to mention the crime rates associated with it.
Without the consequences that using illegal drugs brings, people could find themselves addicted after one dose due to the availability of harmful substances. Returning to environments where crime and drug addiction continues to surround them may cause relapse, where incarceration presents a temporary fix.
In time, if studies find the most effective treatments are expensive and amount to more than funding spent in jails or prisons, this would defeat the purpose of decriminalization and the reallocation of state funding. Without funding to support jails or prisons, it could make staffing and financial matters worse by eliminating the support they need to handle addiction cases.
Instead of unjustly focusing on particular racial neighborhoods, police departments should fairly diversify their patrols into non-marginalized communities to account for the unbalanced and racially motivated arrests regarding drug possession. Institutional racism of this type should be addressed at its forefront by altering laws and expectations for police, since the War on drugs indirectly affects marginalized communities due to racial profiling.
While it’s important to avoid dehumanizing anyone with substance addiction and focus on treatment, allowing the complete decriminalization of drugs may worsen former President Nixon’s War on drugs and harm those that aren’t addicted by making accessibility easier with little consequences.
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