America is Battling Drug Addiction and Oregon is Winning

The year 2020 has been an incredibly significant one for voters in America. Not only was there an extremely tense presidential election, but also different states voted on various controversial legislation as well. Nevada became the first state to recognize gay marriage in it’s state constitution. Arizona, New Jersey, and South Dakota voted to adopt recreational use of marijuana, and the conservative state of Mississippi voted to approve the use of medical marijuana for patients with “debilitating medical conditions” and terminally ill patients. The push for legal use of recreational marijuana mainly stems from the increased tax and sales revenue that benefits the state. California exceeded $1 billion in marijuana tax revenue just two years after legalizing the drug statewide.

Arguably the most controversial legislation passed this year was Oregon’s Measure 110, also known as the Drug Addiction and Recovery Act. Measure 110 decriminalizes federally illegal drugs including cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, (non-prescribed) oxycodone, and several others in the state of Oregon. Medical and recreational marijuana use has already been allowed in Oregon since 2014. Now, a person caught with a non-commercial amount of the specified hard drugs will receive a fine of up to $100, and a fee they can forego if they opt to seek treatment. The measure also expands access to services like health assessments, addiction treatment, and harm reduction for people with addiction disorders through the reallocation of cannabis tax money. Oregon became the first state to decriminalize marijuana in 1973. The state charged a $100 fine for possession of up to an ounce. The difference between legalization and decriminalization is that decriminalization refers to the relaxation of criminal penalties associated with personal marijuana use, while legalization allows individual marijuana possession and can also permit the legal production and sale of the drug.

The battle against mind altering substances dates all the way back to the 1920’s when America successfully attempted a ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages with the passing of the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Prohibitionists at the time believed that the ban would repair a broken society overrun by alcoholism and alcohol related issues including family violence and political corruption. The prohibition of alcohol was repealed when it became clear that the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had done little to curb the sale, production, and consumption of intoxicating liquors, and at the same time organized crime flourished and tax revenues withered. At the height of The Great Depression, the federal government decided that jobs and tax revenue were more important than immoral consumption of alcohol. Congress passed the 21st Amendment to repeal the 18th.

During the 1980’s, America again found itself in a battle against drugs which led First Lady Nancy Reagan to create her famous advertising campaign slogan, “Just Say No.” Richard Evans, a professor from The University of Houston’s Social Psychology department, created the social inoculation model, which included teaching student skills to resist peer pressure and other social influences and was used in Regan’s campaign. Critics of the campaign argued that the campaign consisted of nothing more than a simple catchphrase, despite a significant decline in the use and abuse of illegal recreational drugs.

Oregon has decided to wage a war on drug addiction in a different way. Instead of criminalizing the act and sending addicts to jail, they are instead offering a way to break the addiction all together. With the revenue the state receives from the production and sale of cannabis, Oregon aims to reduce the expense of sending a person to jail and instead offer that person a way to battle and recover from their own addiction. The state is not the first government to decriminalize all drugs. In 2001, Portugal became the first country in the world to decriminalize all drugs. Instead of being arrested, users found with less than a ten-day supply of drugs are given a small fine, a warning, or they are sent to a special commission, which includes a doctor, lawyer, and social worker, for help with treatment, harm reduction, and support services. In the 19 years since decriminalizing all drugs, Portugal has seen dramatic drops in overdoses, HIV infection and drug-related crime.

Lindsay LaSalle is the managing director of policy with the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, and an expert and strategist in the area of harm reduction. According to LaSalle, it costs $23,000 to $35,000 per year to process someone in a misdemeanor drug case, which is much more money than the $9,000 per year it typically costs to provide substance use disorder treatment. In the state of Oregon, Marijuana tax revenue is projected to be over $100 million per year. The savings from these new measures and the revenue of marijuana sales will go to fund access to care for substance use disorder, treatment, housing, harm reduction, and peer recovery and support services.

Critics of the new law say that the sate is enabling drug use and that addicts will simply ignore the fines and offers for help and will continue to take the drugs. Proponents like LaSalle, however, advocate that the decriminalization of drugs will create a more compassionate, supportive, non-coercive system of care to address drug use in the state, while simultaneously increasing access to health and harm reduction services, including housing and substance use disorder treatment, and it establishes addiction recovery services. These new measures, will lead to a reduction in overdoses and other drug related crimes.

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