In response to the opioid epidemic and high rates of drug-related incarceration, many states have been begun to discuss reforming their drug laws. Understandably, there is hesitancy surrounding the idea of rehab instead of prison. But what if the decriminalization of all drugs could help these individuals put an end to their vicious cycle of abuse?
Oregon Passes Measure to Decriminalize Drug Possession
In the most recent U.S. election, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs. Instead of going to prison, those found with less than the state-specified quantities of drugs, including cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, methadone, and oxycodone, would be required to pay a $100 fine. If the individual were assessed at a recovery center, the penalty would be waived.
Proponents of the measure said that drug possession should be treated as a health problem and not a crime. This way, individuals will have a better chance of getting the help they need. They can turn their lives around with rehab instead of prison. They also asserted that passing the law would reduce the tax burden on residents of the state.
Those in opposition claim that removing the threat of incarceration would encourage people to abuse drugs. The decriminalization of all drugs would cause healthcare costs to rise when treatment is refused.
The Impact of Imprisonment on Drug-Addicted Individuals
There’s no evidence to support whether or not removing the threat of incarceration would lead to increased drug use or refusal to get treatment. However, criminalization creates barriers to recovery.
When people with a substance use disorder enter the prison system – and it’s estimated that 65% of incarcerated individuals do – most do not receive any drug rehabilitation.  And the treatment that is offered is typically inadequate. Detoxification services are rarely available to help someone detox safely and comfortably from a substance. There’s little or no emphasis on learning the skills they need to avoid relapse once a jail or prison term has ended. It’s very common for drugs to be smuggled into a jail or prison facility. This makes it even more difficult to get clean.
Once those with a substance use disorder are released, they find it difficult to rebuild their lives. Their time in the criminal justice system did not prepare them to stop using. Therefore, they’re likely to return to the addiction once they feel the shame and hopelessness of trying to find housing and employment with a criminal record. Labeled as a criminal, there’s a greater chance they’ll be picked up again for possession and receive an even longer sentence. Incarceration and repeated sentences do little or nothing to help break the cycle of addiction.
It Costs More to Imprison Addicted Individuals than it Does to Provide Treatment
Proponents of the Oregon measure estimate that, per misdemeanor drug possession, the cost for arrest and conviction is as high as $35,000 for every misdemeanor drug possession. That’s more than the state spends each year per high school student. 
The high costs of incarceration are not isolated to Oregon. In 2007, the National Drug Intelligence Center (once a part of the Department of Justice, but closed in 2015) estimated that costs associated with drug-related crimes were $113 billion. The NDIC report says that treating those with a substance use disorder rather than locking them up would cost an estimated $14.6 billion.  Societal costs have likely increased by a wide margin post-2007 since prescription drug misuse has skyrocketed since then.
Another Argument for Rehab Instead of Prison
Addiction is a global problem. It’s worthwhile to examine how other countries have dealt with the question of rehab versus prison.
At the end of the last century, Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city, was faced with a terrible heroin epidemic. In 2001, Portugal decided to decriminalize personal possession of recreational drugs. Just eight years later, that move resulted in: 
- A drop in illegal drug use by teenagers
- A decrease in HIV rates from sharing contaminated needles
- The number of people seeking treatment more than doubled
Because Portugal focused on treatment rather than punishment, citizens could better manage substance use problems much better than most Western nations that see drug use as a crime rather than a health issue. Those who were initially opposed to decriminalization used the same argument raised by opponents to the Oregon measure.  They believed decriminalizing drug use would exacerbate the problem. They were proven wrong. If Oregon can successfully navigate this change in how drug possession is handled, it will convince other states to push for similar measures in their jurisdictions.
While state legislatures may not want to support the decriminalization of all drugs, they can begin by focusing on the possession of substances that lead to the most arrests. When most citizens learn of the high costs associated with drug-related incarceration, they may be more willing to try an approach that advocates rehab instead of prison.
Learn the Skills You’ll Need to Manage Your Recovery
Defeating a substance use disorder is most successful when patients learn the tools and skills they’ll need to live a sober life and prevent relapse. The experienced and supportive staff at Clear Life Recovery delivers therapies and services that provide its clients with everything they’ll need for a lasting recovery.
If you or a loved one are struggling with a substance use disorder, get in touch with a member of our team. Wherever you are in your battle against addiction, we can help.