The Sad Truth About Drug Legalization

Oregon’s drug legalization “hasn’t gone as planned,” according to The Atlantic, and has been “an unmitigated disaster,” according to Oregon Clackamas County Commissioner Ben West — and does this former legalization proponent have a few things to say about that.

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Measure 110 was voted into law in 2020, effectively legalizing even the hardest of drugs. 58.5% of Oregon voters checked “Yes” to “making personal non-commercial possession of a controlled substance no more than a Class E violation (max fine of $100 fine [sic]).” While technically only decriminalizing everything from shrooms to fentanyl, the lax penalties mean it isn’t worth a cop’s time to get involved — even against commercial possession; i.e., dealers.

The result, Ryan Mills reported for National Review on Tuesday, is what Clackamas County Commissioner Mark Shull described as a “wild, wild west of drug abuse.” Fellow commissioner West called it “an unmitigated disaster” because people are “dying on our streets,” according to Mills.

So what went wrong with Oregon’s drug decriminalization, and why has it made me give up my longtime support for legalization?

ASIDE: Decriminalization and legalization aren’t the same thing, but, given how Measure 110 has (and hasn’t) been put into practice, I’ll be using them interchangeably.

Just a couple of things, really — two vital, inescapable things.

Measure 110 was supposed to focus on “a drug addiction treatment and recovery program funded in part by the state’s marijuana tax revenue and state prison savings” but — surprise! — hasn’t followed through. There is simply no way to make drugs legal without aggressive treatment for addicts. And by “aggressive,” I do mean forcibly locking up, committing, and treating addicts who can’t or won’t take care of themselves. That means rounding the addicts up off the streets and detoxing them before they kill themselves — and/or others.

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In today’s political climate, what in the world made me think that might happen? We barely even commit the clinically insane. In fact, we let them out on the streets so that they can “treat” themselves with whatever narcotics are available. We’ve entered a vicious circle where the mentally ill become drug addicts, and, thanks to the power of today’s narcotics, the drug addicts become mentally ill.

That brings us to the second problem.

I was never one of those dreamers who believed the legalization would be a panacea, or one of those idiot hippies spouting nonsense like, “Just legalize weed, man, and the taxes will eliminate the deficit!” Generally, I believed, the evils of legal drugs were overall preferable to the evils of the Drug War and its various insults to our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

One of the many awful side effects of the War on Drugs has been a radical increase in the potency of drugs. When each transaction is criminal, it benefits both the buyer and the seller to make each transaction as powerful as possible. That, in short (but only in part), is how we went from mild amounts of legal cocaine in various 19th-century elixirs to rampant use today of deadly fentanyl.

But there’s no putting the genie back in the elixir bottle, is there? Alexandria Brown noted on Twitter this morning that “I have changed my mind on legalization of drugs because while I knew that there would be a subset of people who would fall into the abyss, reality has shown that number is far greater than I thought.”

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“I was wrong,” she concluded, “about the first tier effects.”

“Ditto,” I replied. “It may be that those first-tier effects were greatly magnified by the sheer strength of narcotics available now, that weren’t before we started making everything criminal. But this is where we are.”

“This is not either or,” Brown concluded. “You can still think the War on Drugs is a failure while noting legalization is also not the answer.”

Indeed.

The War on Drugs has been a failure, but there’s no going back to the past. We had more laissez-faire laws in the 19th century — mostly because we were a much healthier culture. But if Oregon and Measure 110 are the future, I have to check “No.”

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