Reporter's Notebook

Should All Drugs Be Decriminalized?
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Spurred by comments from Richard Branson at The Atlantic’s Summit on Mental Health and Addiction, readers grapple with the question of whether all drugs, including heroin, should be decriminalized. Join the debate via hello@theatlantic.com, especially if you have a personal connection with addiction.

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'I Was a Slave to Addiction'

That’s how this reader describes his past:

I have been sober—free from drugs and alcohol—for almost nine years. Before I started my journey out of addiction, my life revolved around alcohol, cocaine, MDMA, and prescription painkillers. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel extreme gratitude for where I am now. I know that I am lucky to have found a way out, since most addicts don’t; they end up in prison or in a cemetery.

My experience has really shaped my views on public policy surrounding drugs and addiction. I believe that our current views and policy surrounding illegal drugs is not only ineffective, it perpetuates the very problem it aims to solve.

First, while I was in the trenches with my addiction, I lived in fear. I was afraid of what people thought of me, afraid of being lonely and inadequate; my life was run by fear. Even so, I was never afraid that I was breaking the law. I didn’t think twice about using illegal drugs and I didn’t think twice about breaking the law to continue using them.

Furthermore, I didn’t get sober because I was afraid. I was arrested numerous times, I was berated by a judge in front of a courtroom full of people, I developed serious financial problems and health problems … and yet I still continued to use drugs and alcohol. I didn’t fear the consequences, the loss of family and friends, or the threat of jail.

That’s the conclusion that reader Thomas approaches in his comprehensive case for “decriminalizing or legalizing all drugs”:

Not only has the global War On Drugs been an exorbitant waste of money, it has fueled the rise of mass incarceration, broken families and communities, and the rise of murderous drug cartels. Furthermore, has it curbed drug consumption in the United States or abroad? No.

If drugs are legalized or remain illegal, the fact of the matter is, people will continue to do them. I think that the focus must be more on harm reduction and rehabilitation. We hear about the “last stop” for most addicts—overdose and death. What doesn’t get much of the attention is the multitude of other problems associated with drug use, such as the spread of HIV and hepatitis infections, as well as the hospitalizations and surgeries (paid for by taxpayers) due to abscesses from sharing dirty needles. Addicts clog up emergency rooms because they’re looking for a fix, looking to get off the street, or they’re suffering from an infection. The healthcare system is not equipped to treat these patients, so they’re patched up and shipped back to the streets without any treatment for their underlying problem with addiction.

When it comes to the war on drugs, reader Michel contrasts the success in Portugal with the devastation in Mexico:

Christopher Ingraham / Washington Post

Your reader Ethan wrote: “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.” And there you have much of what’s wrong with American democracy. “Yes, I see the evidence, but I just don’t care, because my common sense tells me something different.”

The use of hard drugs in Portugal has gone down, not up. Drug-related deaths in Portugal have gone down, not up. Drug-related HIV infections in Portugal have gone down, not up. Is that not the definition of “safer”?

A bit of Googling indicates the picture on drug-related crime (robberies, etc.) is murky, what with the collapse of the Portuguese economy since drug legalization. But there doesn’t seem to be any solid evidence that drug-related crime has gone up.

Not to mention—OK, I’m gonna mention it—that the drug-cartel wars in Mexico [between the years 2006 and 2012 saw an estimated total number of homicides reach as high as 125,000], not including an estimated 25,000 missing. That also doesn’t include the drug-gang wars in other countries of Central and South America. Are these people, and their friends and families, not human beings? Does their suffering count for nothing?

Excuse me, I think I need a drink.

On that note, another reader asks, “What about alcohol and tobacco?”

I believe that those two drugs are far more harmful and addictive than all of the other illegal drugs out there. The ravages of alcohol and tobacco are well known, yet they are still socially acceptable. So where do we draw the line?

I just feel that no matter how we slice it, people will continue to use drugs. Why not bring it all out into the light?

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.

One of the best books I read this year was Chasing the Scream, in which author Johann Hari persuasively argues that most people fundamentally misunderstand the nature of drug addiction—how relatively little of the draw is due to the chemicals themselves, even the most powerful ones like heroine. To get a wonderfully distilled version of the book, check out this animation created by a fan:

If you want to listen to a longer version of this argument, Hari did a popular TED talk this summer. And of course for his full argument, buy the book. I compiled a bunch of reviews, favorable and otherwise, here. For instance, Miranda Collinge of Esquire called the book a “fascinating, extensively researched and heartfelt contribution to a debate over drugs policy that continues to rage today”: