“The main idea behind Measure 110 was that consuming politically disfavored intoxicants should not be treated as a crime. Since drug use itself violates no one’s rights, it is hard to argue with that premise.
Eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession, however, does not require tolerating conduct that offends, incommodes, or alarms people who have an equal right to use sidewalks, parks, and other taxpayer-funded facilities. That problem—which many major cities face, regardless of whether they routinely arrest people for drug possession—is distinct from drug use per se, just as disorderly alcohol-related conduct is distinct from drinking per se.”
“According to a 2016 systematic review, “evidence does not, on the whole, suggest improved outcomes related to compulsory treatment approaches, with some studies suggesting potential harms.” The authors conclude that “given the potential for human rights abuses within compulsory treatment settings, non-compulsory treatment modalities should be prioritized by policymakers seeking to reduce drug-related harms.”
One danger of jailing noncompliant drug users is that incarceration raises the risk of a fatal overdose because forced abstinence reduces tolerance. According to a 2023 study, that risk is “markedly elevated” among people recently freed from prison, especially during the first two weeks after release.”
“It is important to keep in mind that Oregon’s Measure 110 did nothing to address the supply of illegal drugs, which remain just as iffy and potentially deadly as they were before the initiative was approved. Decriminalization was limited to drug users, and it was based on the premise that people should not be arrested merely for consuming forbidden intoxicants. This distinction between drug users and drug suppliers is similar to the policy enacted during Prohibition, when bootleggers were treated as criminals but drinkers were not.
Measure 110 changed low-level drug possession from a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum fine of $6,250, to a Class E violation, punishable by a $100 fine. Drug users who receive citations can avoid the fine by agreeing to undergo a “health assessment” that is supposed to “prioritize the self-identified needs of the client.” That assessment might result in a treatment referral, but participation is voluntary.
Despite the limited nature of Oregon’s reform, which was not designed to reduce the hazards posed by the highly variable and unpredictable composition of black-market drugs, Stephens thinks the fact that drug-related deaths continued to rise in Oregon shows that decriminalization has failed. “In 2019 there were 280 unintentional opioid overdose deaths in Oregon,” he writes. “In 2021 there were 745.”
Stephens neglects to mention that drug-related deaths rose nationwide during that period, from about 71,000 in 2019 to more than 107,000 in 2021. The number of deaths involving opioids rose from about 50,000 to about 81,000—a 62 percent increase.
To be sure, the increase in Oregon that Stephens notes was much larger. But how does it compare to trends in other jurisdictions that did not decriminalize drug use?
Between 2019 and 2021, Oregon’s age-adjusted opioid overdose death rate rose from 7.6 to 18.1 per 100,000 residents. California saw a similar increase: from 7.9 to 17.8. In Washington, the rate likewise nearly doubled, from 10.5 to 20.5. And even in 2021, Oregon’s rate was lower than the national rate (24.7) and much lower than the rates in states such as Connecticut (38.3), Delaware (48.1), Kentucky (44.8), Maine (42.4), Maryland (38.5), Tennessee (45.5), Vermont (37.4), and West Virginia (77.2). On its face, this does not look like evidence that decriminalization is responsible for Oregon’s continuing rise in opioid-related deaths.*
While Measure 110 does not seem to have caused an increase in drug-related deaths, it manifestly did not prevent that increase.”
“a heavy drug user who steals to support his habit is not immune from criminal penalties. It also means the government can justifiably regulate what drug users do in public, where their actions might offend, incommode, or alarm people who have an equal right to use sidewalks, parks, and other taxpayer-funded facilities. Although Stephens implies otherwise, eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession does not require tolerating public drug use, defecation, or blowjobs.”
“Drug prohibition sows the seeds of its own defeat by creating a highly lucrative and resilient black market that is always adjusting to enforcement efforts. When police arrest a drug dealer, someone else takes his place. Even dismantling an entire trafficking operation does not have a substantial and lasting impact on retail prices or consumption because it creates opportunities that other organizations are happy to seize.”
“The emergence of the animal tranquilizer xylazine as a fentanyl adulterant, like the emergence of fentanyl as a heroin booster and substitute, has prompted law enforcement officials to agitate for new legal restrictions and criminal penalties. That response is fundamentally misguided, because the threat it aims to address is a familiar consequence of prohibition, which creates a black market in which drug composition is highly variable and unpredictable. Instead of recognizing their complicity in maintaining and magnifying that hazard, drug warriors always think the answer is more of the same.”
“Why is xylazine showing up in fentanyl? For the same reasons fentanyl started showing up in heroin. As a 2014 literature review in Forensic Science International notes, “illicit drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, are often adulterated with other agents to increase bulk and enhance or mimic the illicit drug’s effects.” Because xylazine and heroin have “some similar pharmacologic effects,” the authors say, “synergistic effects may occur in humans when xylazine is use as an adulterant of heroin.”
Before the DEA was warning us about xylazine in fentanyl, it was warning us about fentanyl in heroin, and both hazards are the result of laws that the DEA is dedicated to enforcing. From the perspective of drug traffickers, fentanyl has several advantages over heroin. It is much more potent, which makes it easier to smuggle, and it can be produced much more cheaply and inconspicuously, since it does not require the cultivation of opium poppies. Xylazine has some of the same advantages: It is an inexpensive synthetic drug that can be produced without crops. And unlike fentanyl, it is not currently classified as a controlled substance, which makes it easier and less legally risky to obtain.”
“American drug users are not clamoring for xylazine in their fentanyl, any more than they were demanding fentanyl instead of heroin. In both cases, the use of adulterants is driven by the economics of the black market. And as usual with illegal drugs, consumers do not know what they are getting. The Times underlines that point by noting one response to the proliferation of xylazine: “Addiction medicine experts,” it says, “urged that newly introduced xylazine test strips, which people can use to check the drugs they buy, be as widely distributed as fentanyl test strips.”
The fundamental problem, of course, is the dangerous uncertainty created by prohibition. Unlike alcohol, cannabis products sold by state-licensed pot shops, or legally produced, reliably dosed pharmaceuticals, black-market drugs do not come with any assurance of quality or potency. The introduction of new adulterants like xylazine increases that hazard. We have seen this story play out many times before. Whether it is vitamin E acetate in black-market THC vapes, MDMA mixed with synthetic cathinones or butylone, levamisole in cocaine, or fentanyl pressed into ersatz pain pills, prohibition reliably makes drug use more dangerous.”
“As Cato Institute Policy Analyst Daniel Raisbeck has written for Reason, Plan Colombia’s aid did initially “help the Colombian military to severely weaken the once-formidable [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)]. But Plan Colombia’s anti-narcotics element was an unqualified failure.” Per Raisbeck:
“By 2006, “coca cultivation and cocaine production levels (had) increased by about 15 and 4 percent, respectively.” In 2019, there were more hectares cultivated with coca leaf in Colombia (212,000) than two decades earlier (160,000).
The so-called FARC “dissidents,” thousands of fighters who did not demobilize in 2016, still control large swathes of the cocaine business. They wage constant combat over production areas and export routes against other guerrilla groups and criminal organizations, including several with links to Mexican drug cartels.”
American counternarcotics efforts yielded similarly bad results in Afghanistan. The U.S. spent about $9 billion to tackle Afghanistan’s opium and heroin production, only for the effort to be “perhaps the most feckless” of “all the failures in Afghanistan,” according to The Washington Post’s analysis of confidential government interviews and documents. By 2018, Afghan farmers were growing poppies on four times as much land as they were in 2002. Operation Iron Tempest, meant to cripple Afghanistan’s opium production labs, folded within a year. “Many of the suspected labs turned out to be empty, mud-walled compounds,” noted the Post.
The war on drugs has helped turn Latin America into the most violent region in the world. Criminalization has led to the proliferation of black market activity, a boom in many countries’ prison populations, and increased corruption across Latin America. It’s also contributed to a huge number of homicides: At least half of the violent deaths in Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and Venezuela are estimated to be drug-related, according to the World Economic Forum.
Despite those failures, many Republicans still want to use war on terror tactics to fight Mexican cartels.”
“The increase in overdose deaths among Americans is tragic and obviously a problem. It isn’t one that will be solved by fighting the war on drugs just a little bit harder. It certainly isn’t one that will be solved by bombing a neighboring country against its wishes, risking further escalation. It requires being realistic about the policies that have made drug use more dangerous. “That starts with bipartisan support for prohibition,” writes Reason’s Jacob Sullum, “which creates a black market where the quality and potency of drugs are highly variable and unpredictable.”
Simply stopping the supply of drugs into the country is an impossible task, as decades of prohibition show. Republicans would be far better off embracing harm-reduction strategies rather than pushing for another episode of military adventurism that is destined to fail.”
“Bianca Clayborne and Deonte Williams were driving through rural Tennessee with their five young children when they were pulled over. When police found 5 grams of marijuana in the car, Williams was arrested and the five children were seized by local child protective services. One month later, the couple is still fighting to regain custody of their children.”
“The cannabis industry, of course, remains completely illegitimate in the eyes of the federal government. That means anyone who grows or distributes marijuana in California, even with the state’s approval, is committing federal felonies every day. But even though President Joe Biden wants to keep it that way, he has promised not to interfere with states that reject marijuana prohibition. So why are the feds not only busting marijuana merchants in California but doing so in collaboration with local law enforcement agencies?
The explanation, as you may have surmised, is that these particular marijuana merchants were breaking state law as well as federal law. Their businesses were not just “illegal” but also “unlicensed.” Yet the fact that unlicensed pot dealers continue to thrive in California is testimony to the ways in which the state has botched legalization. Most local governments do not allow recreational sales, and even those that do frequently impose caps that artificially limit the supply. Bureaucratic barriers, costly regulations, and high taxes are daunting deterrents for weed dealers who otherwise might be inclined to go legit.
Those burdens, combined with local bans, explain why unlicensed sales still account for about two-thirds of the marijuana purchased in California. As a recent report from Reason Foundation (which publishes Reason) notes, California has one licensed recreational outlet per 29,282 residents, compared to one per 13,838 in Colorado and one per 6,145 in Oregon. Worse, the report adds, California’s stores are distributed unevenly across the state, leading to “massive cannabis deserts” where “consumers have no access to a legal retailer within a reasonable distance of their home.””
“”Though Covid-19 measures may have varied from country to country, governments’ approaches to tackling the pandemic have had a common failing,” said Rajat Khosla, Amnesty International’s senior director of research, advocacy, and policy, in a statement. “An overemphasis on using punitive sanctions against people for non-compliance with regulations, rather than supporting them to better comply, had a grossly disproportionate effect on those who already faced systematic discrimination.”
“Contrary to the often-voiced claim by governments that ‘we were all in this together’, the truth is that their responses to Covid-19 have been experienced unequally,” states Amnesty’s report. “Nowhere is this more evident than in the impact of Covid-19 measures on people who are discriminatorily targeted by criminal sanctions or punitive laws, policies or regulations,” including people who are homeless, engage in sex work, or use drugs, as well as people “targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.”
Amnesty’s report comes from a survey of private groups “working on issues including sex workers’ rights, LGBTI rights, drug policy reform, homelessness, racial justice, Indigenous people’s rights, discrimination based on work and descent, and sexual and reproductive rights.” It includes information from 28 countries, including the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.”
“Amid the news that the U.S. had reached 1 million deaths from COVID-19, this week saw another grim milestone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the U.S. recorded more than 107,000 deaths from drug overdoses last year, a record high. This is a 15 percent increase from 2020, which held the previous record of around 93,000 deaths. While there has been plenty of talk about how many COVID deaths were preventable, it’s also worth considering how many overdose deaths were the result of needlessly draconian government policies.
According to The New York Times, an increasing share of the number of total overdose deaths came from users of synthetic opioids and methamphetamine. The number of deaths from synthetic opioids increased from 58,000 to 71,000; most of these involved fentanyl, which is considerably stronger than morphine or heroin, and its analogs, which are even more potent. It is often mixed with heroin or stamped into counterfeit prescription drugs. Deaths associated with meth also rose from 25,000 to 33,000.
Each increase follows a longer-term trend: A decade ago, meth-related deaths numbered fewer than 2,000, but by 2017, the number had risen to 10,000. Similarly, deaths from fentanyl numbered around 1,600 in 2011 but increased more than tenfold by 2016.
Obviously, there are a number of reasons why people may abuse drugs. But the role of drug prohibition in exacerbating the crisis cannot be overstated.
During the same years that fentanyl use increased, the prescription rates of opioids like OxyContin plummeted. This was no accident: In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions bragged about how successful the government’s efforts had been at lowering the rates at which doctors prescribed opioids for pain. And yet, the overdose rate continued to climb, as both addicts and chronic pain patients alike were forced to seek out black-market alternatives.
A few years earlier, in an attempt to combat the spread of meth, Congress restricted the availability of the decongestant Sudafed, while the Drug Enforcement Administration cracked down on homegrown meth labs that used it as an ingredient. As a result, cheap, low-quality meth from Mexico with suspect ingredients filled the gap in supply.
Each case provides a perfect example of what Dr. Jeffrey Singer, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, refers to as “like playing a game of ‘Whack-a-Mole,'” in which the government cracks down on a drug, only for its users to seek alternatives, typically in a more dangerous form. Prescription opioids, in particular, certainly do have the potential for abuse, though not to the extent often portrayed in popular media. But for those who genuinely need pain relief and who are suddenly unable to get it, the alternatives are much worse.”
“Three years ago, President Donald Trump bragged that “we are making progress” in reducing drug-related deaths, citing a 4 percent drop between 2017 and 2018. That progress, a dubious accomplishment even then, proved fleeting. The upward trend in drug-related deaths, which began decades ago, resumed that very year, and 2020 saw both the largest increase and the largest number ever. That record was broken last year, according to preliminary data that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published this week.
The CDC projects that the total for 2021 will be nearly 108,000 when the numbers are finalized, up 15 percent from 2020, when the number of deaths jumped by 30 percent. Two-thirds of last year’s cases involved “synthetic opioids other than methadone,” the category that includes fentanyl and its analogs. Those drugs showed up in nearly three-quarters of the cases involving opioids.
Illicit fentanyl, which has become increasingly common as a heroin booster or substitute during the last decade, is now showing up in cocaine, methamphetamine, and counterfeit pills passed off as prescription analgesics or anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax. That phenomenon vividly illustrates the hazards of the black market created by the war on drugs that Trump thought the government was finally winning.
Joe Biden, a supposedly reformed drug warrior, is still keen on “going after drug trafficking and illicit drug profits,” a strategy that has failed for a century but, he figures, might just work this time around. At the same time, Biden talks a lot about drug treatment and other forms of “harm reduction,” including “key tools like naloxone and syringe services programs.” He proudly proclaims that his drug control plan is “the first-ever to champion harm reduction to meet people where they are and engage them in care and services.””
“If we focus on substance rather than words, the real breakthrough will come when politicians understand and acknowledge the nature of the harm that needs to be reduced. It is not just the harm caused by drug abuse but also the harm caused by misguided and counterproductive efforts to address that problem. Prohibition itself is the most obvious example.
Consider one of the harm reduction measures that the Times mentions: the distribution of test strips that can alert drug users to the presence of fentanyl in a substance sold as something else. Those test strips don’t tell you how much fentanyl a bag of powder or a pill contains; they just tell you whether there is a detectable amount. But even that much knowledge is an improvement in a black market where people routinely buy drugs of unknown provenance, composition, and potency.
The danger that fentanyl poses to drug users is not inherent in the drug itself, which can be used safely when you know the dose, as demonstrated by its various medical applications. I was recently given fentanyl, along with midazolam, as a sedative during dental surgery, and I was not at all worried that it would kill me. Patients who receive fentanyl injections in the hospital or use fentanyl patches, lozenges, or nasal spray to relieve severe chronic pain likewise are not dropping dead left and right.
In the black market, by contrast, drug users may not even realize they are buying fentanyl; hence the test strips. Even if they do realize that, they still don’t know the concentration. That potentially lethal ignorance is entirely a product of prohibition. While the proliferation of illicit fentanyl has made drug use more dangerous by increasing variability and uncertainty, those problems are not new. They are inevitable when the government tries to prevent the use of psychoactive substances by banning them.”
“Biden thinks that “going after drug trafficking” will help prevent drug-related deaths. But the pressure from enforcement drives drug traffickers toward more-potent products, which facilitate smuggling by allowing them to pack more doses into the same volume. Alcohol prohibition shifted consumption from beer and wine toward distilled spirits. Drug prohibition gave us heroin instead of opium, fentanyl instead of heroin, and sometimes even-more-potent fentanyl analogs instead of fentanyl.
Given the economics of the black market, interdiction has always been a hopeless proposition. That should be clearer than ever today as the government vainly tries to intercept little packages of fentanyl, each of which contains thousands of doses. But while “going after drug traffickers” has never been a cost-effective way to reduce drug consumption, that does not mean it has not accomplished anything. It has been remarkably effective at making drug use deadlier.”