With drug related deaths on the rise in the United States, the concept of legalizing drugs may seem counterintuitive. However, policy advocates argue that the legalization of drug use can actually make drug use safer. By removing the stigma and criminal penalties associated with drug use, drug users will be more inclined to use drugs in a safer way, and overdose deaths will fall as a result according to proponents of legalization.

Luckily, the conversation around drug decriminalization isn’t just a hypothetical one. In February of 2021, the state of Oregon passed a ballot initiative titled Measure 110 that decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. Along with decriminalization, funds collected from marijuana taxes were channeled into drug prevention and treatment programs. Unfortunately, the rollout of that funding has been slow, and Oregon has seen an increase in drug overdoses over the past two years. “I recognize that Measure 110’s success depends on Oregon’s ability to solve many larger challenges in the behavioral health system, such as the need to expand treatment capacity and better support counselors and other workers,” said OHA Director James Schroeder per apnews.com.

The country of Portugal on the other hand, which enacted decrimalization policies over 20 years ago, has seen a drastic reduction in drug related deaths. Portugal’s drug overdose rate (which was one of the highest in the world during the 1990’s) sharply fell to only 20% of the EU average in a matter of years according to time.com. So why was the Portuguese model so much more effective than Measure 110 in Oregon? Experts point to the expansion of local drug commissions that provide addicts with access to medical care and treatment programs if they are found with recreational amounts of hard drugs. The expansion of these services makes curbing drug addiction much more possible among populations that may not have the financial resources to afford treatment. In the United States on the other hand, medical care and drug treatment often come with a hefty price tag that most addicts cannot afford.

While there are lessons to be learned from the failures in Oregon and the successes in Portugal, it’s evident that there isn’t one easy answer to tackling the opioid epidemic, and the discussion requires more nuance than simply legalizing or criminalizing drugs. Still, as states and municipalities become more open to the idea of decriminalizing drug use, the emergence of new ideas and policy implementations allow for a future with less drug related deaths.


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