New Jersey recently joined several other states and decriminalized marijuana. However the state went one step further with recent legislation. On February 22, 2021, Governor Murphy signed the law that would decriminalize possession of marijuana for adults 21 and over. Unbeknownst to most NJ residents was that the bill also prohibited police officers from contacting parents of minors who are suspected of using marijuana or alcohol. Currently in New Jersey, if a police officer suspected your 12-year old of using alcohol or marijuana, the officer would get in trouble if they contacted you.
Colorado became the first state in America to decriminalize marijuana in 2012, and since then, many states have followed. In the 2020 elections, four additional states voted to legalize cannabis, raising the total to 15. Oregon went a step further, decriminalizing the possession of all drugs, including heroin, oxycodone, methamphetamine, and other hard drugs.
The bold action by Oregon is similar to laws in countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Portugal. At an initial glance, decriminalizing drugs would seem to bring more harm than good. However, advocates claim that legalization reduces the number of drug deaths and the number of people treated for drug addiction.
Drug Law History in the US
Skyrocketing heroin use in the 1960s and 1970s prompted a war on drugs. Soldiers stationed in Vietnam were exposed to marijuana and heroin, and brought the habits back home. In 1971, President Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” Legislation was aimed at regulating certain drugs and substances. In 1981, President Reagan switched the focus to criminal punishment over treatment.
This war has put an enormous strain on the country—with the US spending over $47 billion annually, with a huge strain on the penal system. In 2018, over 600,000 people were charged with possession of marijuana.
But has it worked? In 1970, the death rate due to unintentional drug overdoses per 100,000 people was 2.8. And while that number dropped in 1980 to 1.9, the number has climbed and reached 20.1 in 2017.
Has decriminalization worked?
In total, there are about 25 countries that have decriminalized drugs. Proponents of decriminalization claim it moves resources from punishment and into recovery and treatment for at-risk individuals. It is important to note that decriminalization is not the same as legalization. In most instances, selling or distributing marijuana and other drugs is still illegal.
SImilar to the United States, Portugal’s drug culture began with soldiers returning from war. Soldiers stationed in Africa came home with drugs that the nation had never seen and was unprepared to deal with. Portugal went from having one of the lowest rates of drug usage to being known as the “junkie capital” of the world, with one out of every 100 people using heroin.
In an attempt to intervene, the country decided to embark on a policy to prevent and treat drug use, treating it as a health issue and not a criminal issue. Portugal also made a radical decision to decriminalize drug possession.
Today Portugal offers multiple options for detoxification and long-term treatment, all for free.
Drug possession is now an administrative issue, and is punishable by fines or community service. Individuals found with illegal drugs may still be detained, and depending on the quantity of drugs found, there will be a charge of trafficking or individuals are sent for further evaluation.This procedure also applies to tourists. These policies are what helps decriminalization work in the country.
“Decriminalization is not a silver bullet. If you decriminalize and do nothing else, things will get worse.”
João Goulão, Portugal's National Drug Coordinator
What are the negatives?
While most marijuana users do not become addicted, studies on rats have shown that early exposure to THC decreases the brain’s ability to react to dopamine—the messenger neurotransmitter that helps with the feeling of pleasure. In other words, as the rats age the rats need progressively more THC to feel the same amount of pleasure that was previously felt.
How will legalization affect those who are already vulnerable? Is the term “gateway drug” true? Concerns are that the availability of legal marijuana will provide another option to individuals who are already susceptible to drug taking instead of seeking help.
“Establishing it as a third legal drug, along with tobacco and alcohol, will increase drug abuse, including the expanding opioid epidemic.”
Robert L. DuPont, 2016, president of the Institute for Behavior and Health and the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Portugal’s drug policy has worked only because it invested significant amounts of money and resources towards social and policy changes.
While drugs were decriminalized in Oregon on February 1, Governor Kate Brown delayed releasing funds for drug screening and a treatment services fund until July. The postponement of funds will mean those most in need will not have access to services needed.
As Portugal has shown, drug decriminalization can work. But only if proper measures are put in place to support citizens.