Abandoning drug decriminalization is a mistake — the drugs were never the point

The rollback of drug decriminalization in some places is ignoring the real mechanisms of poverty and addiction

Published June 11, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Drug users prepare cocaine before injecting, inside of a Safe Consumption van set up by Peter Krykant on September 25, 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Drug users prepare cocaine before injecting, inside of a Safe Consumption van set up by Peter Krykant on September 25, 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Attempts to roll back drug prohibition in North America are being met with fierce opposition and even repeal in some cases, delivering severe blows to progressive groups arguing that drug use should not be a crime.

In April, the Canadian province of British Columbia announced it was walking back its policy of decriminalizing personal quantities of narcotics (i.e. you wouldn’t be arrested for holding a gram of coke, but selling is still a crime). It follows Oregon, which decriminalized drugs in 2020 but reversed course earlier this year, meaning having a bag of white powder in your pocket is once again a jailable offense.

The idea was to avoid wasting taxpayer dollars on inflicting yet more punishment on individuals living already chaotic lifestyles, which would further damage their mental health and job prospects, and instead give them space to put their lives back together. But amid a spiraling death toll from the fentanyl crisis and homeless tents filling the sidewalks, lawmakers lost their nerve. If only we’d threatened those people with prolonged confinement and career-ending consequences, that’d show those poor folks to make pin cushions out of their veins!

On closer examination, this doesn’t add up: fentanyl fatalities have been piling up across the nation, regardless of any state policies, while Portland actually fared better in terms of its crime rate than other cities like Seattle and Sacramento, where narcotics are still penalized.

But in any case, blaming permissive policies because you’ve sidestepped someone’s street encampment misses the point: it’s never been about the drugs.

The war on drugs has been a smokescreen for terrorizing troublesome minorities.

The truth is, an illegal drug is just whatever the government says it is, and that in turn is defined by a particular moment in history, culture and politics – for instance, America’s first drug laws in the late 19th Century were to shut down opium dens at a time when racist paranoia about Chinese immigrants (the so-called Yellow Peril) reached its zenith. Meanwhile, there was no particular taboo about well-to-do white women shooting up morphine.

Since then, the war on drugs has been a smokescreen for terrorizing troublesome minorities.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying?” admitted former Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman in a now-infamous quote.

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“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the [Vietnam] 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. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Even today, the law has little to do with the dangers posed by the drugs themselves: nearly six times as many Americans die from alcohol and cigarettes as illicit drugs, yet few are calling to execute bartenders, or round up drinkers and smokers into camps

“Yeah, sure,” you might say, “except everyone knows where to find their nearest bar, but not everyone knows the kind of lowlife that’ll sell you drugs. So obviously drinking is gonna have a higher body count, because it’s more available. Duh.”

An illegal drug is just whatever the government says it is, and that in turn is defined by a particular moment in history, culture and politics.

Such arguments lack the nuance that death comes from illicit drugs being unregulated. Fentanyl of varying potency has turned up in everything from heroin to bogus oxycodone pills (the latter being what killed Robert De Niro’s grandson last year). But fentanyl is used safely as a painkiller in hospitals across the globe every day – it being sold to unsuspecting drug users under less-than-clinical conditions is what makes it deadly. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. After all, we don’t have this problem with booze any more. Ever since Prohibition was repealed in 1933, you can sip a brewski at your local bar without worrying if it’s been poisoned with industrial-grade methanol. Again, it’s not about the drugs – prohibition creates this situation. 

Many people have a visceral reaction to witnessing an unhoused person sparking up a meth pipe, and it’s very easy to think decriminalization has failed if you don’t see the people whose lives haven’t been upended by the justice system, precisely because they haven’t been upended. The vast majority of drug use is non-problematic. The media focuses on problematic drug use because it’s a sexy story – functioning, well-adjusted crack, meth and opioid consumers are boring. 

“Easy for you to say,” you retort, “I see these junkies with their missing teeth, sunken faces, and gross, scabby skin every day. You’re telling me these folks drank too much caffeine?”

But there’s little evidence that the ugly mugs we see on drug war propaganda, such as Faces of Meth for example, are, in fact, because of meth. It’s far more likely that certain drug users’ haggard appearance is from a combination of poor diet, hygiene and living on the street – you sleep rough, you look rough. If the cops are after you and you’ve nowhere to live, booking a spa day is unlikely to be a top priority.

But either drugs themselves or their “evil” pushers are blamed for all manner of social ills, which are actually the product of upbringing, circumstances or the breakdown of personal relationships, as if they’re the cause, and not merely a symptom, of social decay. 

Take the 1980s crack cocaine crisis, for instance. While crack can indeed be terribly habit-forming, addiction is more complex than just taking a drug and developing dependency. Crack didn’t create the hood, it didn’t drastically cut back public services or limit access to health care, and it didn’t artificially inflate its own value through prohibition, making it valuable enough to steal and kill for. 

When Black people migrated to the big cities in the north, they were redlined into ghettos. Then Reagan drained funding from public housing, schools and services in inner-city areas, while blue-collar jobs moved offshore.

“[Black] neighborhoods always had high unemployment, high homicide rates long before crack,” Dr. Carl Hart, a professor at Columbia University and author of Drug Use For Grown-Ups, once told me. “But it was a convenient story for Ronald Reagan’s America and subsequently George Bush’s America. It was a story everyone loved, even some Black people. You had to explain why things were so horrible.”

But crack did however provide an excuse for law and order politics, presenting the war on drugs as a simple solution to complex problems, and caging untold numbers of young (often minoritized) men and women. 

"[Black] neighborhoods always had high unemployment, high homicide rates long before crack."

“So now you have this story everyone bought into of crack being the enemy: that’s the reason our country’s falling apart,” Hart continued. “Just like with terrorism or the Cold War with the Soviet Union, you always need an enemy to society. We exported it to our allies so now there’s a worldwide war on drugs — which is really a war on the poor because rich people are still gonna do drugs. You think the war on drugs affected the Rolling Stones? Hell no.”

Meanwhile, the murder rate for young Black males doubled between 1984 and 1994, but not because of crack-crazed loons on the rampage. An analysis of drug-related homicides in New York City found only 14% were “psychopharmacological” – under the influence of the drug itself. However, over two-thirds of these intoxicated crimes were committed in a drunken rage, and only 16% high on crack. 

Some crack users did turn to crime, but crack ingestion by itself doesn’t induce kleptomania. Rather, smoking crack could prove an expensive pastime, as the price was wildly inflated to compensate for the threats to life and liberty faced by all parties down the supply chain. But in any case, merely 3% of homicides were robberies gone wrong. By far the largest category – nearly three-quarters – were related to the crack business i.e. turf wars and rip-offs over a precious commodity, not because of crack itself, just like the St Valentine’s Day massacre wasn’t because Al Capone sipped a few too many at the speakeasy.

Likewise, today’s overdose crisis should be seen in the context of the dying American Dream. Industries have either shuttered, moved abroad or become automated, decimating tens of thousands of jobs. Adjusted for inflation, the 2020s minimum wage is worth less than it was in the 1960s. Social circles have shrunk to the point that by 2021, over half of young Americans reported feeling lonely all the time, and opioids (and other drugs) help fill that void.

Yet certain voices would have you believe that cities like Portland and San Francisco are literal Hellmouths infested with crime and smelly homeless people because they handle their druggies with velvet mittens, while the real culprits — soaring rents and gentrification — are kicking local residents to the curb in the first place. Conservative writer Michael Shellenberger claims SF’s homelessness crisis started in 2009, when California stopped making housing assistance contingent on sobriety, but this was the same year as the financial crash when many in the middle class lost their homes. The unstable homeless lifestyle is in turn likely to worsen addiction and mental illnesses: losing your job and your home are stressful events for which you may seek chemicals to cope. 

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West Virginia, meanwhile, leads the nation in drug deaths, but its affordable housing means the problem stays out of sight and not splayed out over the sidewalk.

Just like the Chinese were blamed in the past, these days it’s another set of immigrants accused of corrupting wholesome, all-American boys and girls with their fiendish ways. The idea of dirty foreigners spreading some sort of disease or contagion is a trope as old as time, and now it’s drugs standing in for the plague: Republicans have demanded Biden shut the southern border, the alleged floodgates of fentanyl. 

But of the 1.8 million migrants that the Border Force caught crossing over from Mexico in 2021, just 279, or 0.02%, were found to be carrying fentanyl. The overwhelming majority of smugglers busted transporting fentanyl are U.S. citizens, who’d naturally arouse less suspicion, but that doesn’t fit with the white nationalist talk of an “invasion.”

Portugal, which decriminalized all narcotics over two decades ago, hasn't abandoned its depenalization project, pouring money into treatment services and harm reduction. The coastal country now enjoys among the lowest overdose rates in Europe. Is it really easier to punish people than to help them instead?

By Niko Vorobyov

Niko Vorobyov is the author of the book "Dopeworld." Follow him on X @Narco_Polo420

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Addiction Analysis Crack Decriminalization Drug Policy Drugs Fentanyl Homelessness Meth