The Backlash Against Drug Decriminalization Is Drawing the Wrong Lessons

The Backlash Against Drug Decriminalization Is Drawing the Wrong Lessons
A member of the group Moms Stop the Harm adjusts a photograph of an overdose victim to mark International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, Canada, Aug. 31, 2023 (Canadian Press photo by Darryl Dyck via AP Images).

In 2021, Oregon became the first U.S. state to decriminalize personal possession of illicit drugs. The Canadian province of British Columbia followed suit in 2023, the first step in what was meant to be a new path for that country. In doing so, the two joined a growing number of jurisdictions around the world that had bucked the longstanding status quo of criminalization to address drug use. But both have now reversed course, with far-reaching concerning implications for people who use drugs in those jurisdictions and drug policy worldwide.

In 2008, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime acknowledged that global drug prohibition had led to a number of “unintended consequences,” such as policy displacement, whereby resources are diverted from public health toward law enforcement; substance displacement, whereby users turn toward different and often more dangerous drugs; and social impacts, including the exclusion, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use illicit drugs.

To address these effects, over 30 jurisdictions worldwide have moved toward some form of drug decriminalization, which can be defined as “[n]on-criminal responses, such as fines and warnings … for designated activities, such as possession of small quantities of a controlled substance.” Decriminalization is part of a more humane approach to drug policy, centered on public health rather than law enforcement.

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