Here’s What It Means To “Decriminalize” Drugs

On November 3rd, without a thought of how high their screen time was getting, the entire country stared at their television and phone screens. However, many people did not see or just scrolled over the articles explaining the many different states that legalized marijuana and even more impressive, the only state that decriminalized drugs. In 44 states, weed is legal in some form, which may be medical, recreational, or both. Oregon took the next step in 2020’s election. They voted and officially decriminalized personal use and possession of all drugs which prompted a negative response from many people. The terms “decriminalized” and “legalized” are very distinct and crucial to understanding Oregon’s decision. So, today I will be discussing what it means to “decriminalize” drugs.

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Throughout the United States history, we can see that politicians have repeatedly passed laws and “waged wars” against drugs. However, “wars” and laws that criminalize drugs disproportionately target minority communities, which results in enormous populations of minorities imprisoned for even small amounts of drugs. Aggressive drug enforcement in the 1980s led to the mass incarceration of African Americans. The United States comprises about 25% of the world’s prison population, but only 4.25% of the world’s total population, and that is the issue with the criminalization of drugs.  


“War On Drugs”

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There are several times when American Presidents took drastic measures against drugs. President Richard Nixon implemented one of the most infamous, “War on Drugs” during the 1980s. Nixon’s aggressive effort against drugs resulted in Black people, especially men, sent to prison in massive waves. These bold and targeted laws included longer minimums sentences, and hasher sentencing. Beverly Tatum, Ph.D., who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, addresses the many different aspects of racism in America throughout her career. In her book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria?”, Dr. Tatum addresses how Nixon’s war on drugs increased minimum sentences for drug-related offenses from just under two years in 1986 to a five-year minimum in 2004.


Dr. Tatum continues to discuss how drug-related offenses make up approximately 50 percent of the federal population since 1980. Whereas, in state prisons, the number of drug offenders “has increased tenfold since 1980.” Furthermore, Dr. Tatum further shows the ridiculousness of such drastic drug targeting and states that many of the majority of people who make up the drug-related prison populations “are not major players in the drug trade” and do not have violent pasts. Therefore, we can infer that such aggressive tactics to criminalize drugs directly target African Americans and intentionally put more in prison.

What It Means to Decriminalize

We’re now in the wake of the late 1900s’ aggressive drug enforcement tactics. There are plenty of counteractive measures to reverse past presidents like Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan’s actions. However, please do not confuse that with the fact our prison population numbers are still at incredibly high numbers. In the book, “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander, she states that there are “more African American adults under correctional control today in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850.” This quote speaks volumes to our prison systems’ current state. Conditions have hardly changed since the 1800s; they only shifted, though the presidency of President Barack Obama would have you believe racism is long gone.

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There are plenty of counteractive programs that reversed things like the 3-Strike program and other aggressive drug enforcement laws. However, the disproportionate representation of minorities in prisons stays stagnant. This is where decriminalization comes in. Decriminalizing drugs turns drug abuse into a health or mental issue rather than a criminal issue. Looking at drug abuse from an empathetic, health point-of-view provides those addicted to drugs with more opportunity to break the addiction through rehabilitative programs. To send drug abusers with no priors or no violent history to prison for a minimum of five years is the same as giving them a life sentence of hardship and adversity. Additionally, once people are convicted of a crime, they are more than likely to become a reoffender. That’s not because they are or become bad people, but because the circumstances inside prison and the restrictions that surround their release, make it hard to live life as we consider, “normal.”

The rehabilitative approach towards drug addiction will help diminish the disproportionate numbers of minorities in prisons and jails. This approach also rehabilitates more people allowing them to be productive members of society. That is why Oregon decriminalizing low amounts of drugs is a significant step in the right direction.

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