The United States is in the midst of a sea change in public opinion in how it approaches the issue of drug addiction. Proposed changes are not only increasing in popularity by the year but are also arguably good policy that allow for better outcomes for those who have too often been swept under the rug by society. The government and policymakers are moving too slow in responding to these changes in public opinion, and the delay does not bode well for historically oppressed groups in our society, which by extension hurts democracy as a whole.
In the November 2020 election, the state of Oregon passed a referendum decriminalizing possession of small amounts of all drugs. The law would mark a movement in enforcement practices away from treating drug addiction as a crime, and more towards treating it like an illness. Many experts believe that by moving away from punishment and towards treatment, it would allow those who suffer from drug use to get the treatment they need by removing some of the stigma. Kassandra Frederique, director of the Drug Policy alliance, which spent more than $4 million supporting the Oregon measure, told the Washington Post;
“We have been criminalizing people for at least 50 years, and what we know is that it hasn’t gotten us any closer to having our loved ones get the care that they need at the scale that it requires. Criminalization is not a deterrent to use, and it’s not a humane approach. This is about recognizing that we need to support people.”
This new approach stands in stark contrast to policy from previous decades. In what was dubbed the “War on Drugs”, the government moved to aggressively crack down on drug use. Law enforcement moved to put possessors, users, and dealers of these drugs on trial or in jail. Some may have been well-intentioned in their advocacy for these strict measures to “get drugs off the streets.” However, these policies disproportionately hurt communities of color. An Oregon study found that Black and Native American people are more likely to be convicted of a drug crime than their White peers. For example, enforcement on cocaine versus crack was very different between inner city communities and suburbs. Inner city communities had higher populations of people of color and were using crack at higher rates. Suburban communities, on the other hand, had lower populations of people of color and were more likely to be using cocaine. The criminal justice system treated crack users much more harshly than it treated those of cocaine, even though they are very similar drugs except in the way they are consumed. These policies hurt those convicted of drug offenses because they were charged, stigmatized, and punished, when their drug use would have been more effectively addressed through rehabilitation efforts. Racial justice movements like Black Lives Matter have amplified the stories of those who were oppressed by these policies to push for changes to drug enforcement policy, seeing it as key to racial justice.
There is some resistance to these developments to redefine the relationship between drugs and the law. Opponents of the Oregon move are concerned about the other side of the loss of stigmatization for drug use; that it would push people to consider use not as dangerous and engage in it more. Others were concerned about the effects that drug use would have on members of society, saying that they did not want their children to partake. These opinions used to be more popular, but the political landscape in the United States has substantially changed in the past 15 years. In fact, a majority of Americans (55%) now support decriminalizing all drugs, a notable increase.
A close parallel case to decriminalizing drugs is the campaign to legalize marijuana. A large majority (67%) of Americans support its full legalization. Drawing this connection could help in understanding this case in the lens of democratic erosion. As of November 2020, marijuana is legal for recreational use in 15 out of 50 states, and fully prohibited in only 6 out of 50 states. 13 of the states who have legalized marijuana have done it through public referenda, while the other 2 did it through the state legislature. These facts are actually important to understand the staying power of the legalization laws. When a state legalizes marijuana through referenda, it looks good for democracy since wishes of the people are directly implemented. However, moves to legalize marijuana through the state legislature actually have more staying power. The state government is able to respond to implications that arise from legalization, such as regulation, more than voters who approved a single referendum can. In other words, the people cannot guarantee marijuana is “correctly” legalized per se without the cooperation of their government. This poses a challenge for democracy, where delays in policies around the legalization of marijuana may trip up proper implementation and good policy outcomes. Another challenge for democracy is the fact that the federal government still considers it be illegal, and only because of conscious decisions of the Obama and Trump administrations has the law not been enforced. This places the whole experiment on shaky legal ground without federal legalization, since a change in presidential administrations can mean a total change in enforcement. Democracy will be served better if these moves are solidified into law, and those who have been helped by the changes will feel a stronger part of society.
If the will of the people is not correctly implemented, it is bad for democracy because it can cause dissatisfaction for the system, especially with people of color who have been historically oppressed by the old laws. That is why this author urges citizens to hold leaders accountable to properly represent the will of constituents and urges you as the reader to not rest just because legalization recently occurred; there is always more work to be done.
American leaders are somewhat responsive to the desires of the population, but much more responsive to the desires of the higher income bracket. Martin Gilens supports this claim in his work “Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness.” This is very troubling for democracy, because the government may not be as responsive when opinions differ between the lower and upper classes. This was very much true when the War on Drugs was occurring, where the lower income brackets were the ones getting disproportionately hurt. The tide in public opinion turned later, and marijuana legalization and drug decriminalization only became more accepted as society as a whole began to move on. People of color, who are disproportionately poor, suffered a long time waiting for public opinion to move. This is brought up because it is important to place recent developments in context to understand why delays may harm democracy. Those who suffered the longest are the least likely to accept the status quo and system of democracy and putting them through continuing hurt does not bode well for a system that relies on public acceptance. Action on the front of decriminalizing drugs to help the most oppressed group will help democracy as a whole, as it brings the historically disaffected back into the system.
Moves to decriminalize drugs show how fast public opinion and policy can move. These developments highlight the need of democratic governments to remember justice and mercy, and also highlight the need for them to listen. To assist in this, the author suggests you get more involved in advocacy to hold those in power accountable. Doing this helps the oppressed in our society and makes democracy stronger for all of us who love it.