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Hard Drugs Decriminalized: Changing Times, Changing Attitudes

By Lavinia Inbar and Richard. J. Aitken

The times they are a-changin,’ and with the times, attitudes towards the recreational use of drugs are also changing. First, medical marijuana (cannabis) was legalized in a few jurisdictions, then recreational marijuana was either decriminalized or legalized in a few states in the U.S. and in Canada. Now it looks like there is a trend developing to, if not legalize, at least decriminalize hard drugs and this trend is beginning in the state of Oregon.

In the recent American presidential election voters not only got to vote for a president, but as is the system in the U.S., also got to vote on proposed new laws. In Oregon voters approved the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act which decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of hard drugs in the state of Oregon. (Oregon voters also supported the legalization of the therapeutic use of psilocybin, aka “magic mushrooms.”) Oregon is the first state, and indeed the first North American jurisdiction, to decriminalize hard drugs. The hard drugs in question are drugs like (but not exclusively) cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. (Incidentally, Oregon was also the first state to decriminalize marijuana – back in 1973!)

The difference between legalization and decriminalization, is that if something is legalized, it’s just legal (although often with some restrictions). Marijuana in Canada is “legal” in the sense that a person may (with some restrictions, including restrictions on driving while under the influence) use it, possess limited amounts, grow limited amounts for own use and legally buy it from licenced sellers. If a something is decriminalized, a person may not legally use, possess, buy or produce that something legally. However, if caught with the illegal something, the penalties are not severe and do not leave the person with a criminal record. Decriminalization (not legalization) is what has happened with hard drugs in Oregon.

Decriminalization of drugs in Oregon, will result in people arrested with small amounts of hard drugs being able to avoid criminal justice consequences (for example going to trial and possibly jail) by instead paying a $100 fine and attending an addiction recovery program. These addiction programs will be funded by marijuana revenues. (Marijuana was previously legalized in Oregon.) Penalties for larger amounts of hard drugs have also been somewhat reduced.

The approach taken by Oregon is to treat drug users not as criminals, but as people in need of medical treatment. The new law states that: “People suffering from addiction are more effectively treated with health care services than with criminal punishments.” That Oregon voters voted in favour of a law that takes this approach, reflects a change in the societal attitude toward drugs.

Note that the law largely targets drug users found with small amounts of the drugs. Drug producers and traffickers would still be pursued and prosecuted as criminals. Anyone found with large amounts of these drugs would likely be viewed as a trafficker (because no one is going to buy the story that those 10 kilos of heroine found in your possession are for your personal use because you’re just an addict).

While the proposal was denounced by the Oregon Republican Party and some prosecutors, it was endorsed by the Oregon Democratic Party and some medical associations.

The critics of the law say that decriminalization would actually encourage hard drug use. There are studies that support this view and studies that support the opposite view. A few countries in Europe have taken the decriminalization approach and it seems, according to European reports, to be working out. If it also works out in Oregon, this change in Oregon’s state law is likely to mark the beginning of legal reform with respect to hard drugs throughout North America, including Canada.

Attitudes towards marijuana use have relaxed considerably, and in the Oregon approach it looks like we’re seeing the beginning of similar changes of attitude towards the harder drugs. Whatever your own attitude with regards to the recreational use of drugs is, if you agree that the “war on drugs” has not been successful, you’ll agree that the Oregon experiment is worth watching.

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November 26, 2023

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