Of all the debates surrounding drug abuse, perhaps the most divided is the question of whether all drugs should be legalized. Proponents of decriminalization say that most of the harm caused by drug abuse comes from the unregulated market for drugs. With no standards in place and no one to regulate them, producers and distributors of illegal drugs have no reason to be concerned with safety, either pertaining to the drugs themselves or the way they are transported and distributed. If drugs were legalized, this black market would theoretically disappear, making the streets safer and cutting down on the number of people dying because of contaminated drugs.

Money comprises a large amount of the argument. Legalizing drugs could potentially reduce their cost, leading to addicts being less likely to steal or commit violence in order to afford them. It could also save the government the money involved in the more than 1.5 million drug arrests made each year — more arrests than for all violent crimes combined. More than 80 percent of these are for possession only and involve no violent offense.

Because criminal penalties for drug possession and sale do not seem to be effective in reducing the rate of drug abuse, critics say it’s time to look at other methods.

Critics of drug prohibition have long said that it was founded based on racism, and remains racist in practice today. Black people comprise just 13 percent of the U.S. population and use drugs at a similar rate as other racial and ethnic groups, but they make up 29 percent of those arrested for drug law violations and about 35 percent of those incarcerated in state prison for drug possession only.

Some of the other arguments in favor of decriminalization are:

  • The government does not have the right to limit a person’s choices regarding what they put in their own body.
  • Resources could instead be spent focusing on more serious, violent crimes
  • People would have more of an incentive to seek treatment if they didn’t fear legal repercussions
  • Relationships would be improved between law enforcement and communities

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. Portuguese authorities don’t arrest anyone found holding what are considered less than a 10-day supply of an illicit drug — a gram of heroin, ecstasy, or amphetamine, two grams of cocaine, or 25 grams of cannabis. Instead, drug offenders receive a citation and are ordered to appear before panels made up of legal, social, and psychological experts. Most cases are suspended, but individuals who repeatedly come before the panels may be prescribed treatment, ranging from motivational counseling to opiate substitution therapy. Portugal’s current rate of drug-related death is more than five times lower than the European Union’s average.

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