Should All Drugs Be Decriminalized?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This week, at The Atlantic’s inaugural Summit on Mental Health and Addiction, business magnate Richard Branson scrutinized at length the global war on drugs and called for a radical new approach. Vann covered his comments:

[Branson] believes that focusing on domestic American reforms would reduce the global policy will to criminalize drugs and would provide strong momentum for pushing a goal that seems well beyond even the outer limits of the American policy imagination. “Decriminalizing and regulating all drugs is going to be the answer,” he proclaimed.

Branson leans heavily on the international example of Portugal as evidence for the efficacy of decriminalization. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs, replacing jail and prison time with fines or rehab appointments for those caught using drugs in public. The results have been dramatic, with drug deaths and addiction both falling by large margins over the years, an example which has convinced Branson and the Global Commission on Drug Policy. “The amount of people taking heroin now has gone down by something like 80 percent,” Branson said.  

You can watch his entire 45-minute talk here, and a snippet is embedded above. But a reader, Ethan Ash, isn’t quite convinced:

Branson’s cause is intriguing to me. I see it as a near inevitability that in the next 10-15 years marijuana will be legal nationwide. “Hard” drugs, though? Knowing the potential for addiction and fatal overdose of cocaine, meth, heroin ... I find that dubious at best. Portugal’s experimentation notwithstanding, I don’t see the appetite even among the hardcore “legalize it” crowd, let-alone the moderates it’d take to make meaningful progress on that here in the U.S.

Even small-government conservatives like myself believe in government intervention when critical for safety, and it’s not challenging to argue that the “hard” drugs aren’t safe under any circumstances. Therefore, they’re an infinitely harder sell than marijuana, which even the most critical of studies paint as being minimally harmful to long-term health and functioning.

What do you think? Drop us an email and we’ll get a debate going. Or if you’d simply like to share your story of addiction (anonymously if you prefer), or your experience with someone who’s had an addiction, please let us know.

I shared some of Ethan’s skepticism toward hard-drug decriminalization until I delved into Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream, one of the best books I read last year and can’t recommend enough. Hari goes into great detail about the Portugal example Vann cites, as well as other successful battles against heroin addiction in Switzerland and Vancouver, British Columbia—battles that approach addiction as a health problem, not a crime.

For example, here’s one of the most intriguing policies from Portugal: The government offers businesses major wage subsidies if they agrees to hire recovering heroin addicts, the logic being that addicts usually turn back to drugs because they’ve lost a sense of purpose and connection to society due to criminalization and stigmatization. The program has been really successful; participating businesses tend to keep on the employees even after the wage subsidies end.

I’ve noted this before, but here’s a great animation that gets to the heart of Hari’s thesis—that addiction has little to do with chemicals, but rather a lack of human connection: