In May, Governor Jared Polis (D) signed a bill addressing “fentanyl accountability and prevention” in Colorado. Among other things, the new law implements stricter criminal penalties for possession of smaller amounts of fentanyl, along with fentanyl-laced drugs. The bill’s introduction came on the heels of fentanyl overdose deaths in Colorado quadrupling in 2021 compared to 2019 figures, with the potent painkiller killing more than 900 people last year.
According to Colorado Public Radio, some Democrats weren’t happy with the “war on drugs” approach of additional incarceration for drug possession, and Republicans weren’t happy with the new criminal penalties, arguing that they should be more stringent. But while Colorado’s legislature has chosen more punitive measures to address the state’s addiction crisis, other countries and even one state has gone in the opposite direction.
Decriminalization leads to lower overdose deaths and addiction rates
In 2001, Portugal was the first developed country to classify drug addiction as a public health crisis instead of as a crime issue, thus re-orienting national drug policy toward recovery rather than punishment. According to the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, overdose-related deaths have remained below the European Union average since 2001. The percentage of prison inmates serving time for drug-related offenses is now at just 15% (compared to 40% of inmates prior to 2001), and Portugal’s drug use rates have also remained below the EU average for the past 20 years. Portugal’s success has inspired similar reforms in the United States.
What to learn from Oregon’s example
In 2020, Oregon voters approved a ballot measure that decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines (Oregon previously legalized recreational cannabis in 2016). Rather than making arrests for possession, police in Oregon now issue a citation for an amount between $45 and $100, and those cited are given the number to a hotline residents can call to get connected to recovery-related services. The citation fee can be waived for those who seek treatment, and the hotline itself is staffed by recovering drug addicts.
The results of the ballot measure have been mixed. While the state has provided more funding for harm-reduction measures and there have been fewer arrests — allowing for addicts to not have the blemish of a criminal record when seeking housing and job opportunities — Oregon still ranks second out of all 50 states in substance abuse. Oregon also ranks dead last out of all 50 states in percentage of teens and adults who need addiction recovery treatment but don’t seek it.
However, according to The Guardian, many Oregonians say where the decriminalization measure fell short was not in the policy itself, but rather due to a lack of a proper pathway to addiction recovery itself. In Portugal, for instance, those caught with drugs are routed to “dissuasion commissions” that decide whether or not a person suffers from substance abuse disorder. If so, those people are either referred to treatment services, or alternatively required to pay a fine and/or perform community service.
British Columbia’s decriminalization experiment
One more recent example not too far from us is in the Canadian province of British Columbia, where addiction is also a significant issue affecting communities throughout the province. In May, the provincial government opted to decriminalize 2.5 grams or less of previously illegal drugs.
In July, Interfaith joined a call with academics, substance abuse experts, and recovering addicts, all of whom weighed in on the decriminalization initiative. The overwhelming consensus among the affected population is that decriminalization of just 2.5 grams of drugs is not enough, won’t reduce overdose deaths, and won’t reduce policing of those struggling with substance abuse. Some preferred a higher threshold for possession, and others preferred no threshold at all, though they acknowledged that would likely be unpopular with both law enforcement and the public at large.
Erica McAdam, who is a research assistant at the British Columbia Centre on Substance Abuse, exhaustively broke down polling and crime data and found that allowing possession of up to 15 grams of drugs would significantly reduce policing and over-incarceration of addicts, while also allowing law enforcement to still appropriately target those trafficking large amounts of drugs.
Where this leaves Colorado
Colorado has the benefit of learning from Portugal, Oregon, and British Columbia, seeing how decriminalization of an amount of drugs with a feasible threshold can work properly, especially when coupled with a pathway to recovery services. While we’re still in the throes of the opioid crisis, conducting further research into decriminalization may prove that as a strategy to lower addiction rates and overdose deaths in Colorado.