Should the United States Decriminalize the Possession of Drugs?

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Should the United States Decriminalize the Possession of Drugs?

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Attitudes around drugs have changed considerably over the past few decades. Voters’ approval of drug-related initiatives in several states in the Nov. 3 election made that clear:

New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and Arizona joined 11 other states that had already legalized recreational marijuana. Mississippi and South Dakota made medical marijuana legal, bringing the total to 35.

The citizens of Washington, D.C., voted to decriminalize psilocybin, the organic compound active in psychedelic mushrooms. Oregon voters approved two drug-related initiatives. One decriminalized possession of small amounts of illegal drugs including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines. (It did not make it legal to sell the drugs.) Another measure authorized the creation of a state program to license providers of psilocybin.

What is your reaction to these measures? Do you think more states — or even the entire country — should decriminalize marijuana? What about other drugs?

In “This Election, a Divided America Stands United on One Topic,” Jonah Engel Bromwich writes about the growing support to decriminalize drugs in the United States:

Election night represented a significant victory for three forces pushing for drug reform for different but interlocking reasons. There is the increasingly powerful cannabis industry. There are state governments struggling with budget shortfalls, hungry to fill coffers in the midst of a pandemic.

And then there are the reform advocates, who for decades have been saying that imprisonment, federal mandatory minimum sentences and prohibitive cash bail for drug charges ruin lives and communities, particularly those of Black Americans.

Decriminalization is popular, in part, because Americans believe that too many people are in jails and prisons, and also because Americans personally affected by the country’s continuing opioid crisis have been persuaded to see drugs as a public health issue.

Then, Mr. Bromwich explores the history of the “war on drugs”:

President Nixon started the war on drugs but it grew increasingly draconian during the Reagan administration. Nancy Reagan’s top priority was the antidrug campaign, which she pushed aggressively as her husband signed a series of punitive measures into law — measures shaped in part by Joseph R. Biden Jr., then a senator.

“We want you to help us create an outspoken intolerance for drug use,” Mrs. Reagan said in 1986. “For the sake of our children, I implore each of you to be unyielding and inflexible in your opposition to drugs.”

America’s airwaves were flooded with antidrug initiatives. An ad campaign that starred a man frying an egg and claiming “this is your brain on drugs” was introduced in 1987 and aired incessantly. Numerous animal mascots took up the cause of warning children about drugs and safety, including Daren the Lion, who educated children on drugs and bullying, and McGruff the Crime Dog, who taught children to open their hearts and minds to authority figures.

In 1986 Congress passed a law mandating severe prison sentences for users of crack, who were disproportionately Black. In 1989, with prison rates rising, 64 percent of Americans surveyed said that drug abuse was the most serious problem facing the United States.

The focus on crack meant that when pot returned to the headlines in the 1990s, it received comparatively cozy publicity. In 1996, California voters passed a measure allowing for the use of medical marijuana. Two years later, medical marijuana initiatives were approved by voters in four more states.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Do you think marijuana should be legal in the United States? Do you think the country should decriminalize the possession of small amounts of other drugs, like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines, as Oregon did this election cycle? Why or why not?

  • What do you think might be the potential dangers of decriminalization? Do you think it will increase the number of people abusing drugs? Will it downplay the threat that drugs pose, especially to children? Could it pose safety risks, like traffic accidents and violence? Which of these dangers would you be most worried about and why?

  • What do you think might be the benefits of decriminalization? Do you think it will encourage people to get treatment for addiction? Will it reduce drug violence, or keep more nonviolent people out of prison? Will it allow the government to regulate drugs, as it does alcohol and tobacco? Could it reduce government spending, stimulate the economy and create jobs? Which of these benefits would be most important to you and why?

  • In your opinion, do the benefits of decriminalization of drugs outweigh the risks? Why or why not?

  • How do you feel about drug use in your community and state? Do you know if there is a concern about addiction or overdose in your region? Do you think decriminalization would benefit your community?