Benefits of Measure 110 are generational

This is a Guest View column I had published Nov 20, 2021 as Legalize Drugs for Everyone’s Sake in the Eugene Register Guard. Oregon’s Measure 110 decriminalized almost all drugs. That is, possession of small amounts of even drugs like heroin only results in a citation and fine. There are a bunch of other related provisions including some benefit to calling a drug hotline for referral to rehabilitation.

This is a response to a Register Guard front page feature article (Oct 29) on “How Measure 110 has measured up.” Although the article mentions inequity in passing, the article is almost entirely about the effect of Measure 110 on drug addiction and rehabilitation. Of note is that Measure 110 only came into effect in early 2021.

Guest View column as submitted:

It would be easy to read the article on Measure 110 (Oct 29) and think that drug criminalization was related to drug addiction. Let’s look at history to see if this is the case. In particular, let’s consider the science, or lack thereof, behind the implementation of drug laws.

A common argument for drug laws is that someone knows somebody that is grateful they were arrested and forced into rehabilitation. Well, I know a former addict that is grateful they were not arrested because a record would have significantly reduced the chances of them having the professional career they had. But such tit-for-tat anecdotal stories don’t represent scientific data. Going deeper, the absurdity of (the church financed) Reefer Madness – which, among other things, implied marijuana would make you a murderer – illustrates the lack of science in the 1930s when drug laws were being put in place. Further, the government continues to ignore its own study by the Shafer Commission which recommended decriminalizing marijuana in 1972.

So what was the motivation? In the 1930s Randolph Hearst and other publishers associated marijuana with supposedly crazy and dangerous Mexicans, while Reefer Madness’ use of parties featuring jazz helped associate marijuana with Blacks. And there is the interview with John Ehrlichman (Nixon’s domestic policy chief) published in Harper’s Magazine. Ehrlichman stated, [The war on drugs] “was authored by President Nixon not for reasons of health or science, but rather simple prejudice … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities …Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The consequences of this racist motivation have been huge. Studies consistently show that minorities have been disproportionately targeted and incarcerated for drug possession. A specific example was the longer sentences for crack (vs. powdered) cocaine possession in the ‘80s. Incarceration contributes to multigenerational poverty. Not only does a person lose personal income by being incarcerated and paying related judicial costs, the entire family loses income and parental involvement.

We need better ways of helping people with addiction, but within the context of drug laws, addiction is a red herring misdirecting attention from much greater harm. Addiction is also used as a red herring for the unhoused (addiction is a symptom, not a cause). It’s harder to afford housing when you can’t get a job because of a drug arrest. Another red herring is violence. From Prohibition to drug cartels, the vast majority of drug related violence is due to the illegality of drugs, not their use.

Mental health is another victim of drug demonization. In addition to the trauma of homelessness and incarceration (both individually and to families) the understanding of the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin and similar drugs was delayed by decades because of the Reefer Madness type hysteria around LSD in the ‘60s.

Here are some questions relevant to Measure 110 and decriminalizing drugs. How many people will get jobs that they would not otherwise have gotten because of a drug arrest? How many more people will be able to afford higher education because their parents got those jobs? How many more people will be able to afford housing because of a decrease in stigma associated with drug use and arrest? Since many people can’t afford time off of work, what role does this cost in time and money play in people not showing up to court? Even though over prescription of opioids has increased addiction, not every user of opioids (or other drugs) is an addict. What role does this play in people not calling drug hotlines when cited for possession?

The harm from drug criminalization has accumulated over nearly a century. Undoing this harm by decriminalizing – or legalizing – drugs will take generations, not months. But the mere fact that fewer people are developing rap sheets or being harassed on the streets for harmless drug possession is already a positive step towards changing social and economic inequity.

It is unfortunate that even many proponents of decriminalizing or legalizing drugs are unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge, the racist origins of the war on drugs or the far ranging harm these laws have caused.  The evidence supports legalizing drugs for everyone’s sake.

(End Guest View column)

There is so much more that could be said about this and it’s not hard to find information supporting the legalization of drugs. For example, I came across this 2015 article, “The Beginning of the End of the War On Drugs? UN Agency Advocates Drug Decriminalization, Says War on Drugs Violates Human Rights” in the Atlanta Black Star.

And the cover image is from a 2016 article by release.org.uk.

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