Is Decriminalization the Best Approach to Vermont's, and Nation's, Drug Abuse Problem?

Criminalizing drugs doesn't make them disappear, it simply drives them underground into much more dangerous settings.
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Last week, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin made history as the first governor to devote his entire State of the State address to drug abuse and addiction. This is a great milestone itself, but his proposed increases in funding for treatment programs will only do so much to fight the state's drug abuse crisis. To seriously reduce the harms of drug abuse, Gov. Shumlin and every other governor facing similar crises should consider decriminalizing the possession of all drugs.

To call Vermont's situation a crisis is no exaggeration. As described in Shumlin's address, the state has seen a 770 percent increase in treatment for opiates since 2000, and in 2013 had nearly double the number of heroin overdose deaths as the previous year. The rest of the nation isn't doing much better: Every day, 100 people needlessly die from drug overdoses, more than triple the number twenty years ago.

To halt and reverse these trends, we should look to a country that was once facing a similar crisis: Portugal. At the height of the country's heroin epidemic in the mid-1990s, over one percent of the entire population was considered "severely drug-addicted" -- in comparison, only 0.2 percent of Americans used heroin at all in 2012 -- and overdose deaths were on the rise.

Rather than maintain their own failing laws, they decided to treat drug abuse as a health issue, not a criminal justice one, and decriminalized the personal possession and use of all drugs in 2000. No drugs were legalized, but people caught with small amounts now face confiscation and a warning rather than an arrest and possible jail time. The Ministry of Health sends problematic users to a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser to guide them into treatment and recovery. This process is voluntary, and users can turn down treatment without facing jail time, or other criminal sanctions.

Fourteen years later, we can see it's working quite well: Heroin usage rates have leveled off, new HIV diagnoses have plummeted, fewer teens are using illegal drugs, and drug-related crime is on the decline. The number of people seeking treatment has more than doubled, and drug abuse has been cut in half.

Should this approach's success really be much of a surprise? Criminalizing drugs doesn't make them disappear, it simply drives them underground into much more dangerous settings. People struggling with addiction live in constant fear of arrest and prosecution, making it much less likely they will seek treatment. When someone overdoses on illegal drugs, they and those around them may delay calling 911 (or not call at all) out of fear of arrest, causing numerous deaths that could have been easily avoided. Treating drug abusers as patients rather than criminals, like we already do for alcohol and tobacco addicts, avoids these issues, and is much more effective at reducing abuse.

Vermont may be the best state to lead the nation in adopting a Portugal-style approach to fighting drug abuse. Its elected officials, like Gov. Shumlin and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, are no strangers to bold policy proposals on everything from health care to NSA mass surveillance. Along with 15 others, the state has already decriminalized the possession of marijuana, and the same arguments apply to all other drugs.

Voters, in Vermont and across the country, would actually be quite supportive of such a move. Just last month, a Huffington Post poll found that a majority of Americans oppose any jail time for drug possession, including "hard" drugs like cocaine and heroin. A whopping 82 percent of adults recognize that the War on Drugs has failed.

Gov. Shumlin should be lauded for his commitment to this issue, not just in his unprecedented address, but throughout his entire career. He has already acknowledged that drug abuse is a mental health issue, but now needs to realize that Portugal-style decriminalization is the best approach to actually treating it like one.

The crisis in his state is tragic, but also an opportunity to finally break free from the War on Drugs mentality that has helped create it.

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