Oregon voters infused some long-overdue realism into their state’s legal system with a vote to decriminalize possession of small amounts of narcotics. But the drug enforcement industry is not ready to give up its exalted police powers without a fight.
Opponents denounced the ballot initiative, Measure 110, as “radical.” The only thing radical is its direct challenge to the myth that something useful has been accomplished by a half-century of selective enforcement and capriciously imposed draconian penalties for low-level drug suppliers and consumers. When fully phased in by next fall, the measure will allow individuals to pay a $100 fine or go to an addiction recovery center rather than face jail time if they are found with small amounts of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or other illegal drugs.
It is hard to argue that the measure goes too far when current practice has failed to stop an epidemic of deadly drug abuse that has swept the nation in more waves than the coronavirus pandemic ever will. There is no case to be made that making a product illegal can effectively stifle demand or shut off supply. We learned that lesson 100 years ago with Prohibition. We also learned, and have continuously re-learned, that such measures create enormous profit potential for those who are ruthless enough to fill the void in the resulting black market.
It took less than two decades of Prohibition to give La Cosa Nostra a beachhead in American cities. It expanded from that foothold for several generations. Since the war on drugs’ origins in the 1960s and 1970s, it has decimated societies in producing countries, financed terrorists and dictators, corrupted cops, spawned murderous gangs here and abroad, shattered countless families, and tempted or coerced young people out of schools and into the streets. All toward what end? Anyone who wants an illegal drug can get it, if they can come up with the cash. The demand, meanwhile, drives an array of undesirable secondary activity, from burglary and robbery to drug dealing and prostitution.
More than 30 states have now nominally legalized medical marijuana use, and 15 plus the District of Columbia either permit recreational use for adults or will, when recent ballot measures are implemented. Oregon was a leader here, too, having decriminalized marijuana possession back in 1973. However, federal law still makes all marijuana possession and use a crime.
No state has gone as far as Oregon did this month in legalizing other street drugs, but even Oregon’s move does not go far enough. People are dying every day because the drugs they buy are of unknown provenance, of inconsistent potency and often laced with dangerous impurities. They are getting sick through the use of shared needles. They are being shot when dealers fighting for turf spray bullets indiscriminately at rivals or seek to silence complaining witnesses.
None of this is happening with alcohol (anymore) or tobacco. We know how to regulate and tax the production and sale of such products, and how to keep their use more or less confined to adults.
This is not a personal argument in favor of drug use. I don’t drink alcohol, and I have never smoked tobacco or used any illegal drug, including marijuana. That was my personal choice; other people make other choices. My views on their choices don’t matter. There ought to be a consensus that safety is paramount, and that when something hasn’t worked in half a century, it’s time to try something else.
The status quo works well for some powerful vested interests. The anti-drug crusade is a full employment program and a funding source for law enforcement, at all levels of government. The alcoholic beverage industry, for which legalized drugs would be a new competitor for consumer dollars, is a source of employment and campaign contributions in every lawmaker’s constituency. These self-interested voices are lobbying to keep things as they are, often openly, and presumably sometimes not.
I suggest that this is why most of the progress toward sensible drug policy has had to come from the electorate, and not those who are elected. We have seen slow, incremental movement in the right direction. But radical? Whether by Oregon standards or anyone else’s, we have not seen radical reform. Not yet.