HAAS TAKE: A Hard Case for Decriminalization

Ella Haas, News/Opinion Editor

Opioid use is increasing within high-school age groups.

According to RehabSpot, “21,000 (American) teenagers used heroin in 2015, and 6,000 of them had a heroin use disorder in the previous year. Unfortunately, it appears the problem is getting worse. Teenage opioid addiction rates increased by 19 percent between 2014 and 2015.” 

Between 2014 and 2019, synthetic opioid-related deaths “have risen tenfold,” according to a report by American nonprofit research center the Rand Corporation. Fentanyl was a common culprit.

Originally created as a pain relief drug, fentanyl has a similar effect to heroin and is between 50 and 100 times more powerful than morphine. Because of its potency, it’s often mixed into illegally-sold recreational substances like cocaine or MDMA to strengthen the effects of the drug for less money.

It can cause slow respiration, low blood pressure, fainting, nausea, seizures, and death. Because drug dealers’ at-home measuring methods aren’t as advanced as those of trained and experienced pharmacists, fentanyl is terrifyingly easy to measure improperly – with deadly consequences. Of New Hampshire’s 439 drug deaths in 2015, 70 percent were caused by an overdose of fentanyl, according to drugabuse.gov.

The easiest solution to stopping fentanyl deaths, it would seem, is to prohibit the use of recreational street drugs – but really, how’s that been working? It didn’t save the 70,000 people who died from overdoses in 2017, 68 percent of which were opioid-related. According to the CDC, an average of 130 Americans die from opioids every day. 

Maybe it’s time we stop acting like America has the answer to everything, and instead we ought to take a look at Portugal. Once a country where hundreds died of opioid overdoses every year and 1 percent of the population admitted to being dependent on hard drugs, the 2001 decriminalization of all substances reduced the number of addicts by 50 percent. Overdose deaths dropped to 30 or so every year. 

According to CBC, “Portugal’s mortality rate from drugs is now more than four times lower than the European average.” One of their interviewees, recovering heroin addict Fernando Rias, attributes this drop to the way decriminalization has caused a shift in the way people regard substance abusers.

“They treat us like sick people, not criminals,” says Rias.

Illegalization doesn’t stop people from using drugs. It only puts them in further danger.

When users don’t know what’s in their drugs or how much they’re ingesting, overdose becomes significantly more likely to occur. Moreover, the illegal status of these substances creates a huge stigma around them, meaning addicts are less likely to seek help for fear of shame, ostracization, or legal repercussions. Some people may even refuse to go to the hospital for overdoses for fear of facing criminal charges. 

People are going to use drugs one way or another. Obviously some people are going to use them with abandon if the threat of prison is taken away, but the truth is that same threat barricades too many people from seeking help – most addicts want to get better, as any ex-drug abuser will tell you. If they don’t believe their communities provide resources to keep them safe and healthy while doing so, they are shamed into keeping it in the dark, consequently putting their lives at risk.

Says CBC of Portugal’s policy, “anyone caught with a ‘personal’ amount of drugs — up to 10 days’ worth of a substance — can be ordered to appear before a health department official like Nuno Capaz. He’s the sociologist who heads up the Lisbon commission.

‘When I wake up in the morning, I’m not thinking, ‘How many fines am I going to apply?’ So it’s easy to focus on the health issues and the help we can provide,’ Capaz said.

There are no gowns or gavels in the commission’s bare-bones office and police and prosecutors aren’t involved.

Instead, the commission’s function is to identify potential problem drug users early on and either provide them with information about treatment or quickly get them access to the health-care system.”

Drug use is safer, more informed, and easier to quit in a world where it’s not treated as a serious offense. Instead of promoting substance abuse, as so many claim it will, it actually allows people to receive the medical attention and the care they need. 

When addiction is treated like a curable illness (for which people won’t become outcasts if they try to seek help) instead of a crime, users who recognize their problems are more likely to come forward in an effort to quit using. They can speak freely with medical professionals to ensure they know the lasting impacts of what they’re consuming, and people can get substances tested for life-threatening contaminants – like fentanyl – without facing charges. Decriminalizing drugs means people can not only use safely, but quit safely.

Statistics have proven it saves lives – not only by stopping untimely deaths, but by allowing users to reclaim their lives with an effective, supportive means of terminating their drug habits.

Decriminalization isn’t about promotion. It’s about removing stigma: a force as deadly and life-threatening as fentanyl itself.