Decriminalization: Mayor Pete May Have a Point

Daniel Nesbitt ’22

Opinion Editor

Recently, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg unveiled a detailed and comprehensive proposal to address the mental health and addiction crises that currently plague our country. While his proposal contains many varying policy ideas, the one that stands out is the decriminalization of all drugs. While many other candidates have endorsed legalizing or decriminalizing just marijuana, Buttigieg has extended this to all drugs. While I in no way support Pete Buttigieg for the Democratic nomination, I strongly and vehemently support the decriminalization of all drugs. Decriminalizing all drugs is, without a doubt, great public policy, and is demonstrably the proper course of action in combatting drug addiction in the U.S.
Within the legal framework of decriminalization, the purchase, possession, and consumption of drugs is still technically illegal, however only noncriminal sanctions such as fines or treatment requirements can be imposed. This, in turn, allows drug addiction to be treated as an issue of public health rather than criminality.
Decriminalization has had major success on a national scale, the prime example of this is found in Portugal. Beginning in 2001, all drugs were decriminalized in Portugal with a great deal of concomitant positive effects. For example, as one study found, “treatment programs–both in terms of funding levels and the willingness of the population to seek them–improved substantially.” As a result, the number of cases of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C decreased dramatically in the years following decriminalization. In addition, drug-related deaths also decreased substantially. A decrease in drug-related deaths would be a welcome sight following multiple years of decreasing life expectancy in the United States, due in large part to drug overdose fatalities. Furthermore, as a direct consequence of decriminalization in Portugal, the drug prevalence rate, “which [measures] how many people have consumed a particular drug or drugs over the course of their lifetime,” decreased for nearly every substance among youth ages 13-18.
In addition to the numerous and significant public health benefits, decriminalization would also have a substantial impact on the system of mass incarceration. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system, drug arrests accounted for approximately 15% of all arrests in 2017, with a total of more than 1.6 million persons arrested. With a decriminalization scheme that retroactively applies the new policy, myriad persons would be free of the limitations and constraints of a past felony conviction.
Unfortunately for Mayor Pete, decriminalization of all drugs will likely be very difficult to sell politically. For example, a 2016 poll of registered voters found that few respondents supported the decriminalization of substances such as LSD, cocaine, heroin, and meth (18%, 16%, 13%, and 15%, respectively), while 59% supported the decriminalization of marijuana. When asked about legalizing drugs for recreational use, marijuana was the only substance found to have greater than 10% support.
Before you arrive at a conclusion about the decriminalization or legalization of all drugs, I implore you, consider this question: should the government have the right to infringe on your bodily autonomy and decide what substances you can or cannot put in your body? My answer is an emphatic “No.”

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