Every schoolchild knows that drugs are “bad.” From elementary school upwards, we’ve been constantly reminded that winners don’t use drugs, and that even a momentary lapse in judgment can lead to a lifetime of substance use. Every elementary schooler can tell you about their red wristbands they are supposed to wear during Red Ribbon week, and entire week dedicated to anti-drug messages. We are told by organizations like Red Ribbon that that first drag of pot can not only land you in jail, but that it leads to harder, nastier substances like heroin or cocaine.
This attitude is reflected in California’s drug laws. Currently, the possession of marijuana is a criminal offense, and will land most a short time in jail. Schools have a “zero-tolerance” policy, which forbids use or possession of drugs, and result in harsh penalties for those who break these rules. A hard stance against drugs is evident in our politicians’ attitudes towards drug users. Drug users, say our leaders, are criminals, and treating them as such is an effective way to curb drug use. Unfortunately for them, there is conclusive evidence indicating the opposite.
The decriminalization of all drugs, including the “hard stuff” like heroin, should be the goal of California’s legislators if they ever want to actually combat drug use. This position is not mainstream in America, but it is the position backed up by facts. Evidence supporting decriminalization is plentiful and concrete. The strongest argument for decriminalization can be found in, of all places, Portugal.
In 2001, faced with a surge of their citizens using and abusing drugs, and with some of their cities’ slums turning into the shame of Europe, the Portugese government passed an edict completely decriminalizing drug use. This was greeted with howls of outrage from more conservative politicians, especially those who predicted it would lead to foreigners flocking to Portugal to take advantage of the new laws. Eight years later, not only have new problems failed to develop, but the original spate of drug use has fallen to previously unheard of lows. Currently, Portugal boasts some of the lowest rates of drug use in Europe. “Drug tourism” is a non-problem: 95% of all drug-related citations in Portugal have been issued to Portugese citizens. Drug trafficking, drug-related offenses, and the number of deaths from overdosing have all fallen dramatically. The number of citizens in drug rehabilitation has risen from 6,000 in 1999 to 24,000 in 2008. The number of young Portuguese who claim to have used marijuana has also fallen.
Decriminalization in California is not a new idea, but it has never been part of the political mainstream. Now, however, it seems that the public mood has shifted from punishment to treatment. It can even benefit our wallets: billions could be made through the taxation of marijuana or similar substances.
It’s time to face the facts. Red Ribbon is doing an admirable thing in trying to lessen the number of youth abusing drugs, and we can all agree that the less people using drugs, the better. If this means we ignore our gut feeling and use the method shown to work, then so be it.