A Black man packs harm reduction kits. A banner behind him reads "Decriminalize Already".

Decriminalize Drugs, Invest in Health Services  (Deep Dive)

This section offers a deep dive into the issue of drug decriminalization. To visit the main page for a quicker overview, click here. Otherwise, keep scrolling to learn more.


Why Decriminalizing Drugs, Investing in Health Matters

Communities Need a Health Approach to Drugs. Drug Decriminalization Opens the Way.

Americans want to decriminalize drugs. They know that arresting or jailing someone for drugs does not work. A 2021 poll shows that 66% of Americans now support eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession and replacing them with a health approach.

Drug decriminalization means that people are no longer arrested or incarcerated for drugs for personal use.  No longer enforcing personal drug possession saves money. These savings can go towards needed services and supports. This includes voluntary treatment, housing, employment, harm reduction, recovery services, and peer support. Drug decriminalization does not legalize drugs.

Substance Use Disorder Treatment


Problems Caused by The U.S. Government Prioritizing Drug Criminalization

The US Government Is Prioritizing Disproven Punitive Responses to Drugs.

Many elected officials prioritize punitive responses to drugs over public health approaches. Yet, criminalization has not made our communities safer or healthier. Drugs are more potent, available, and cheaper than ever, and overdose deaths are at an all-time high. Nearly 108,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2021 alone. At the same time, people are cycling through jails and prisons with limited to no access to services – and overdose risk increases after they leave.

The criminalization of drug possession is a major driver of arrests and pretrial detention in the United States. Each year, U.S. law enforcement makes over 1.5 million drug arrests – more arrests than for all violent crimes combined. The majority of these arrests are for drug possession only. Each year hundreds of thousands of people are in jail for drug possession, most while waiting to be charged and before they have even had a trial. Hundreds of thousands of people also remain under supervision, like probation and parole, for drug possession crimes.

Ending these arrests is the most important step we can take right now.

People convicted of drug law violations face lifelong barriers, including the loss of federal financial aid, occupational licenses, the right to vote, eviction from public housing, and denial of public assistance. A drug conviction can negatively impact every aspect of one’s life. It is time to remove the drug war from everyday life.

Criminalization stigmatizes drug use. It discourages people from getting the help they want. It prevents the use of proven lifesaving overdose prevention interventions. Currently, access to drug checking services like fentanyl test strips and naloxone (an opioid overdose reversal drug) vary by state and are subject to local laws. Access without a prescription can be illegal and subject to arrest.

The criminalization of drugs inequitably harms Indigenous, Black, and other racialized, marginalized, and low-income communities who are more likely to be stopped, searched, convicted, and harshly sentenced for drug possession.

Our country has spent billions of dollars arresting people for drugs. It costs nearly 20 thousand dollars more to arrest, prosecute, and jail someone for simple drug possession than to provide drug treatment to those people who want it. Instead of arresting and jailing people for drugs, we must shift those dollars to provide voluntary addiction services and other social supports.


Decriminalize Drugs, Invest in Health Services Across the U.S.

Drug Policy Alliance Is Working to Decriminalize Drugs Across the Country.

The time has come for states to pass more thoughtful approaches to address the harms of the drug war. Decriminalizing drugs while building health-centered alternatives is a necessary part of a public health approach to drugs. We are currently leading the efforts in Washington, D.C., Vermont, and Congress while supporting other efforts around the country.

As efforts to decriminalize drug possession move forward, it is important to keep values in mind. Reforms must reduce incarceration, repair past harms, and refocus funding on improving community health and safety.

Comprehensive approaches to drug decriminalization must:

Drug Policy Alliance is also working on other aspects of decriminalization. This work focuses on removing criminal penalties for drug paraphernalia like drug checking supplies and ensuring people who use drugs have access to overdose prevention centers. Overdose prevention centers offer a place where people can be connected to support services and safely consume drugs under the supervision of a trained professional that can react in the case of an overdose or other health emergency.

Treatment must be voluntary.

As we shift from criminalization to a health approach, it’s important to note that not everyone who uses drugs needs or wants treatment. The Drug Policy Alliance believes that when treatment is sought, it must be voluntary, accessible, affordable, and appropriate. You can learn more about substance use disorder treatment here.


Benefits of Decriminalizing Drugs, Investing in Health Services

Drug Decriminalization Increases Resources for Communities, Reduces Arrests, and More.

Comprehensive approaches to drug decriminalization can help to:


Portugal decriminalized drug possession in 2001. More than two decades later, drug use has remained about the same. However, arrests, incarceration, disease, overdose, and other harms are all down.


In 2020, Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved Ballot Measure 110, making Oregon the first state in the U.S. to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all drugs. It also greatly expanded addiction services and social supports through redirected marijuana tax revenue and law enforcement savings.

Measure 110 made progress towards its goal of decreasing the harms of criminalization.

Measure 110 redirected the majority of Oregon’s marijuana tax revenue into funding addiction services. This included low-barrier substance use disorder treatment, harm reduction and overdose prevention services, housing, recovery and peer support services, and employment supports. Measure 110 required that these services be available in every county in the state through atleast one Behavioral Health Resource Network.

Measure 110 resulted in over $300 million to expand addiction services in its first two years alone, resulting in dramatic increases in the number of clients accessing services:

Unfortunately, Oregon lawmakers recriminalized drug possession and rolled-back Measure 110 after an intense, well-funded disinformation campaign. Politicians scapegoated Measure 110 for the problems caused by their own failures. The devastating public suffering in Oregon is the result of longstanding government failure to address homelessness, overdose, and other urgent crises. Oregon leaders’ chronic underfunding of affordable housing, effective addiction services, and accessible healthcareare to blame for the heartbreaking public suffering seen in Oregon’s streets.

But Oregon is in a better place than it was prior to Measure 110, when penalties for possession were more severe. Even the proponents of its rollback admitted that Measure 110 successfully expanded service provision, agreeing the services it created must stay in place. Learn more about what happened with Oregon’s Measure 110.

It’s Time to Decriminalize Drugs and Invest in Health Services.

Criminalization is ruining countless lives. Join the Drug Policy Alliance in building a new approach that puts people first. Together we can decriminalize drugs and invest in health services.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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