Decriminalizing all drugs could be the answer

Abby Buchanan

After nearly fifty years and over $47 billion spent since Richard Nixon initially declared a War on Drugs, America still faces a serious problem with drug addiction.  With the rise of the opioid epidemic and steady use of illicit substances throughout the decades, it’s clear our country’s current approach of stigmatizing and criminalizing drug use has failed to curb addiction rates.

It’s easy to view decriminalizing drug use as an incredibly radical idea, and rightfully so. This proposition directly contradicts our society’s understanding of chemical dependency being the primary cause of addiction. If given the chance, wouldn’t someone addicted to a drug continue or even increase their usage? While the chemical hook of many drugs can play a part in addiction, it is far from the only influence.

Much of what America understands about chemical dependency is largely based off of two major research studies into operant conditioning. The first, conducted by B.F. Skinner in 1948, taught lab rats to press down on a lever to receive food or stop electric shocks. The second study took place during the 1960s where a group of experimental psychologists used the same system while supplementing the lever use, originally for food and avoiding discomfort, with a dosing of narcotics. Within this structure the rats would almost always become addicted to the drug and compulsively press the lever.

During the 1970s, psychologist Bruce K. Alexander altered the environment of the previous studies in a project known as Rat Park.  Instead of the isolated, unstimulating Skinner boxes, several rats were placed in an engaging environment with room to socialize and reproduce. When offered two water bottles, one laced with morphine, the rats rarely drank from the morphine solution.  The few rats that did use the morphine-laced water never did so compulsively.

Through a 2010 report on his experiment, Alexander explains the difference in results as, “It soon became absolutely clear to us that the earlier Skinner box experiments did not prove that morphine was irresistible to rats. Rather, most of the consumption of rats isolated in a Skinner box was likely to be a response to isolation itself.” 

It’s an unfortunate reality that most Americans live more akin to the environment of Skinner boxes than Rat Park. The country faces incredibly serious sociological problems such as growing financial insecurity, rising depression and anxiety rates, and an epidemic of loneliness. It’s unsurprising that in this disorientating, unfulfilling environment many would seek to anesthetize themselves through drug use. 

A culture of stigmatization and criminalization only stands to worsen this problem. By providing clinics for safe drug consumption, work incentivising programs, and mental health treatment, those battling addiction have a shame-free environment to help combat some of the underlying troubles pushing them to drug use.

It’s important to clarify that this is not necessarily a new idea. In 2001 Portugal decriminalized all drug use, reallocating the money originally spent on incarcerating drug offenders to provide work incentivisation and counseling for those battling addiction. Susana Ferreira from The Guardian reports that after this policy, “The opioid crisis soon stabilized, and the ensuing years saw dramatic drops in problematic drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates.”  Switzerland saw similar results with their decriminalization of heroin in 1994.

Some may believe that policy would lead to complete anarchy and rampant drug use, but as author Johann Hari argues, “What we have now is anarchy. We have unknown criminals selling unknown chemicals to unknown users; all in public places …. This process of changing the drug laws is a process of restoring order to that anarchy.”

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