Decriminalize Everything: A Surprising Alternative to the War on Drugs

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Written by Liam Kadel

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In America, the prevalence of illegal drugs has long been one of the most salient issues among policymakers. It has become obvious that all previous efforts to reduce addiction in the country have failed. Many argue that the solution is for the government to increase its efforts to arrest drug dealers and addicts, but this method is incredibly costly to both the federal government and to Black and Brown communities. Rather, the most effective way to reduce substance abuse in the United States is to employ a rehabilitative approach by providing free, sanitary treatments to addicts and decriminalizing the possession and use of drugs. 

For years, the campaign against drug use in the US has been billed as “The War on Drugs,” but the United States government has suffered a 5-decade streak of embarrassing losses. In 2018, the total prison population was an estimated 6.4 million, with 1 in 5 prisoners committed on drug charges. Due to the racial bias of many police and the justice system at large, 80% of those people in federal institutions are either Brown or Black, with state prisons following at a slightly less abysmal 60%. This tactic, called mass incarceration, costs the national government over $182 billion every single year. Despite these hefty expenses, drug use is continuing to rise: in a survey of Americans 12 years or older, 13% said they had used an illegal substance at least once in their lifetime. Shockingly, a similar percentage of people said the same thing 40 years ago. In addition, over 20,000 more people died of overdoses in 2020 than in 2019, totaling in excess of 90,000 casualties last year alone. 


The War on Drugs fails to address the root of the problem with addiction, which is a lack of access to effective treatments and rehabilitation. Anti-drug propaganda has spread like wildfire since the 1970s, leading to a massive stigma against addicts. This shame likely pushes people away from getting help for fear of being socially ostracized. Even when one does seek help, many professional physicians prove underqualified to deal with addiction, as a large gap exists in healthcare between general medicine and treatments for substance abuse. This disparity is especially true for minority racial and ethnic groups who, due to a long history of oppression, are more often impoverished and therefore more likely to use. The best solution is to address these gaps in the healthcare system by increasing access to affordable health insurance and training more doctors to treat drug problems. In countries where possession has been decriminalized, this strategy has proved effective. In Germany, treatment for heroin addiction utilizes controlled amounts of the substance to decrease cravings and dependence over time, leading to a drop in substance abuse nationwide. Portugal is well-known for its rehabilitation approach, one part of which addresses the transmission of diseases such as HIV by offering free, clean needles to heroin addicts. This has led to an impressive decrease in new cases of AIDS and overdose deaths since the program began in 2001. 

Many argue against decriminalization for fear that, without arresting those possessing and using drugs, cases of addiction will spike. However, this apprehension does not align with the reality of reforms done in other countries. According to a report by the Cato Institute on the Portuguese rehabilitation campaign, “none of the fears promulgated by opponents of Portuguese decriminalization… [have] come to fruition, whereas many of the benefits predicted by drug policymakers from instituting a decriminalization regime have been realized.” In addition, by spending fewer tax dollars on imprisoning drug users, Portugal could now focus more on arresting dealers, enforcing safety standards, and encouraging addicts to seek newly funded treatment. Far more than some may realize, addiction is caused more by external stressors than an internal drive. A famous study done on Vietnam veterans found that, despite the high rates of heroin addiction among soldiers during wartime, only 1 out of 10 stayed addicted upon returning home simply because their homes were calmer places to be than a battlefield. At the time, Vietnam veterans were being forced to undergo rehabilitative treatments, regardless of whether they were still addicted. The report ends with this quote: “…we need to rethink public policy with respect to forced treatment. When only a small proportion is likely to become readdicted, should treatment be forced on all, particularly without evidence that the treatment is effective?” (Robins et al.) Here, a trend appears in how the United States government chooses to treat the drug problem: with unnecessary force and a striking lack of evidence.

Since its inception in the early 1970s, the War on Drugs has been a horrific failure in the United States, becoming completely ineffective and often counterintuitive in handling the problem it was intended to solve. Despite the enormous expenses of mass incarceration and the large racial disparities in overcrowded correctional facilities, national and local governments continue to employ outdated and disproven strategies in reducing cases of addiction. Seeing the success of more empathetic approaches in other countries, it is time that America implemented reforms to decriminalize the possession and use of drugs and to expand access to treatments for individuals vulnerable to substance abuse.

Works Cited 

Drug Policy Alliance. “Race and the Drug War.” Drug Policy Alliance, 2020, Accessed Sept 2021. 

Greenwald, Glenn. “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies.” Cato Institute, 2009, 

Lee, Nathaniel. “America Has Spent over a Trillion Dollars Fighting the War on Drugs. 50 Years Later, Drug Use in the U.S. Is Climbing Again.” CNBC, 17 June 2021, s.html. Accessed Sept. 2021. 

NCBI. “Health Care Systems and Substance Use Disorders.” NCBI, US Department of Health and Human Services, Nov. 2016, Robins, Lee N., et al. “How Permanent Was Vietnam Drug Addiction?” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 64, no. 12, Dec. 1974, pp. 38–43,, 

10.2105/ajph.64.12_suppl.38. Accessed Sept. 2021. 

U.S. Department of Justice. “Key Statistics: Total Correctional Population.” Bureau of Justice Statistics, 11 May 2021, Accessed Sept. 2021. 

Verthein, Uwe, et al. “Long-Term Effects of Heroin-Assisted Treatment in Germany.” Addiction, vol. 103, no. 6, June 2008, pp. 960–966,, 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2008.02185.x.