Pros and Cons of Decriminalizing Drug Addiction

April 23, 2018

A judge signing a document

Several US states have recently decided to legalize medical and recreational marijuana. Along the same path, the general population consciousness is moving toward being in favor of decriminalizing drug use in general. Therefore, many people are considering the impact these changes might have on individuals, communities and our overall culture.

Some compare the change in perception of drug addiction to the end of prohibition in the 1930s. However, many warn that decriminalizing drug use will lead to rampant addiction much worse than the epidemic is now. Because of these polarizing views, discerning the true pros and cons of these changes can be quite challenging.

Is Decriminalization the Same as Legalization?

Decriminalization is not the same as legalization. In Portugal, for instance, virtually all drug use was decriminalized in 2001.1 That does not, however, mean that drug use is legal. The distribution and sale of controlled substances is still a criminal offense in Portugal, but possession and use of drugs are handled as a public health problem and not criminal activity. Cases of substance abuse and addiction are handled by counselors, psychologists and social workers instead of police and prison wardens.

This allows people who are addicted to drugs to get help — from the state — without entering the penal system.

While there may be certain substances, such as marijuana, that would be made truly legal in some cases, the decriminalization of drugs does not mean that there is a free-for-all with drug use. Users cannot get high in public and buy and sell chemicals from whomever they please with no fear of prosecution. It simply changes the way society deals with the problem of addiction from a legal and treatment perspective.

Now that Portugal’s decriminalization process is over a decade old, there are several long-term benefits that have been recognized, including the following:

  • Substance abuse and addiction rates have been cut in half since decriminalization
  • Addiction treatment and rehabilitation is less expensive than incarceration
  • Individuals with substance abuse problems are much more likely to find recovery in rehab than in jail
  • People completing treatment can become productive members of society much more easily than convicted felons
  • Violence related to drug trafficking is greatly reduced
  • Courts are freed up for other important work
  • The rebellious, countercultural essence of drug use is changed when society sees it as a disease and not a crime2
Many decriminalization advocates point to the success of Portugal as a positive statement in favor of decriminalization.

Cons of Decriminalization

Such a change in philosophy and practice certainly brings apprehension and warning. Not everyone is convinced that decriminalization is the best way forward for the United States.

Detractors often cite the following concerns:

  • Individuals with a biological predisposition toward addiction may be more likely to experiment with drugs if they do not fear legal prosecution.
  • The existing treatment resources are not nearly large enough to handle the influx of millions of new addicts from the legal system.
  • Decriminalization may lead to a push for legalization in some situations.
  • If decriminalization leads to an increased supply of drugs on the streets of the US, prices will fall and millions of new people may be tempted to experiment.
The fear of the unknown—how culture would change if drugs were decriminalized and how our country would handle it—is a strong factor for those who are in favor of keeping drug used designated as a criminal offense. There are too many factors that could have ongoing negative effects within US culture to lend any excitement toward any potential positive changes.

Most Americans do not come face to face with drugs or with drug addicts until someone in their lives is affected. This lack of familiarity can lead to fear of the unknown. Those who consider substance abuse morally or spiritually objectionable often fear that decriminalization sends a confusing message of partial endorsement for such dangerous choices to young, impressionable people.

Help for Drug Use and Addiction

If you or someone you love is struggling with drug addiction and is ready to receive help, we want to help connect you to the best facilities available to get you started on a path to a healthier and happier life without drugs. We are a network of treatment centers that all have the goal of helping patients find recovery. Please reach out today.


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