Timing is Right for Decriminalizing Drug Use

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization, Harm Reduction, Marijuana Legalization

Supporters of Drug Policy Alliance rally against the War On Drugs (via DPA)

Few advocacy organizations have the sophistication and credibility of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). Therefore, when the DPA publishes a new report entitled “It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession” including – yes – hard drugs like heroin and cocaine, it is time to stand up and take serious notice.

“Drug decriminalization is a critical next step toward achieving a national drug policy that puts science and public health before punishment and incarceration,” according to the July 10 report. This is not legalization. Drug use would still bring civil sanctions, much like a traffic ticket, and trafficking would still be a criminal offense. Still, a serious proposal to decriminalize all drugs, not just marijuana, constitutes a milestone.

Two questions spring to mind. Why this campaign now? Aren’t we in the middle of a reactionary national administration hostile to drug policy reform? And, is this really a winnable cause? Marijuana, yes, but most of us make a distinction between marijuana and the harder drugs.

Both are valid questions. It is helpful to consider them together. If we can understand “why now,” we will be better able to assess the likelihood that decriminalization will someday become national policy.

DPA notes in the very first sentence of its report that, “By any measure and every metric, the U.S. war on drugs – a constellation of laws and policies that seek to prevent and control the use and sale of drugs primarily through punishment and coercion – has been a colossal failure with tragic results.” President Nixon initiated the War on Drugs in 1971. That makes this the longest war in U.S. history. After 46 years, it is time to do something different.

Success in reforming marijuana laws has made us ready for next steps. Twenty-one states and Washington D.C. have either legalized or decriminalized marijuana. Over one-half the U.S. population lives in a political jurisdiction where medical marijuana is legal. The sky has not fallen as predicted. We are willing to think about other drug reforms as well.

Truth be told, decriminalization of other drugs has already happened. When in the mid-1980s Rev. Edwin Sanders began giving clean needles to drug addicts outside the doors of his Nashville church as a way of helping them avoid death through HIV-AIDS infection, he started a quiet policy revolution. It became humane to help addicts, not arrest them. The term “harm reduction” has entered into the national consciousness. All the rest is detail.

Other countries are showing us the way. Over 30 nations have taken some version of this step, most notably Portugal, but also Spain, the Netherlands, Australia, and others. These models are working. No doubt we will continue to ignore them for a while, but when it comes to drug policy, the United States cannot remain provincial forever.

Finally, the opioid crisis is forcing the issue. When crack cocaine hit our mostly African-American inner cities in the mid-1980s, we responded with police SWAT teams, jail and prison time, and obscenely harsh sentencing laws. As opioid use ravages a predominantly white and rural population, we are seeking funding for drug treatment and supporting police who do not arrest addicts but help them find essential services. We cannot erase the shame of this disparity. But at least we can learn from the cruelty of our past.

I have been waiting for this report for a long time. If we can achieve the overriding goal it sets forth, we will finally have delivered a fatal blow to the War on Drugs, which has done so much damage to so many for so long.

The timing is right.