No culpemos a la descriminalización por el fracaso de cien años de prohibición

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No culpemos a la descriminalización por el fracaso de cien años de prohibición

8 mayo 2024

La respuesta policial y los enfoques punitivos están condenados a exacerbar los riesgos y daños, afectando desproporcionadamente a las comunidades marginadas. Más información, en inglés, está disponible abajo.

The recent backlash against the decriminalisation of drug use is a worrying sign of decision-makers’ short-sightedness. We, as a society, need to reconnect with marginalised people and not re-criminalise them.

Just four years after voters in Oregon approved Measure 110, a law that effectively decriminalised the use of illicit substances, legislators decided to change the law and re-criminalise drug use (watch our interview with Theishia Naidoo, legal expert of the Drug Policy Alliance). Furthermore, just one year after the Canadian province of British Columbia launched a 3-year experiment of decriminalising drug use, its government announced a few days ago that it will ban drug use in public spaces again.

In its 2012 report, the UK-based advocacy organisation, Release, called decriminalisation “a qiuet revolution”, with a growing number of countries introducing various de facto and de jure alternatives to the criminalisation of drug use. Unfortunately, we cannot take the continuation of this trend for granted. We are now dangerously close to the point when re-criminalisation becomes a new trend, making the public see decriminalisation as a “failed experiment”. This will have a very harmful impact not only in the West but also in other parts of the world, where the proponents of much more repressive policies can use the “they tried it and it did not work” argument against reformers.

Decriminalisation has always been the result of decades-long advocacy efforts by professionals and activists, using arguments informed by both scientific evidence and lived experience. However, the arguments in favour of re-criminalisation are frustratingly shallow. The same old arguments for the war on drugs, which have never been backed up by evidence, are being reloaded and refurbished.

Proponents of re-criminalisation argue that, without a certain “nudge” from the criminal justice system, people who struggle with drug dependence will not be able to access treatment. However, if you look at research evidence on this issue, you will realise that coercion is not effective in boosting access to drug treatment. Furthermore, criminalisation leads to stigma, which is one of the most significant barriers to accessing services among people who use drugs. Police intervention may make people hide their drug use, but claiming that arrests are the only way to get people into treatment is nonsense. According to UN experts, the exact opposite is true: “criminalisation results in significant barriers to access to health services.”

Opponents of decriminalisation also argue that decriminalisation has not been successful in reducing drug use and related nuisances. They claim drug use is “out of control” after decriminalisation. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what decriminalisation is about. After decades of the war on drugs and its devastating effects on generations of marginalised communities, it is unfair to expect that simply removing criminal sanctions against drug users will magically solve all problems. Despite the decriminalisation of drug use, selling drugs remains illegal (they are out of control indeed, just like they have been before), with heavy consequences for public health and safety. Therefore, although decriminalisation has not led to increased drug use or overdoses, it also has not been able to reverse negative trends. The rise in overdose deaths correlates with a deadly drug toxicity crisis in North America. This crisis is dominated by extremely potent and toxic substances like fentanyl.

I believe that the single most important factor behind re-criminalisation is not a genuine concern for public health or the well-being of people who use drugs. Rather, the re-criminalisation efforts are spurred by the aesthetic concerns of upper- and middle-income people. It is not about social justice but about urban remodelling. It is no surprise that the campaign for re-criminalisation in Oregon was funded by wealthy businessmen who think that the presence of marginalised people is bad for business. These businessmen realised that criminalisation of drug use would help the police get rid of these people. But people who think that re-criminalising drug use is a solution will be disappointed because the real problem is not drug use.

As a filmmaker, I had the privilege of visiting both Oregon and British Columbia in the past to document the drug situation (for instance, watch this movie we filmed in Vancouver). After interviewing several professionals, activists and people with lived experience, I came to the conclusion that cities like Portland or Vancouver do not have a “drug crisis” per se. Instead, they have a social inequality and social exclusion crisis. The real problem is poverty, lack of housing, poor mental health, unresolved childhood trauma and all the suffering that comes with surviving street life. The sad truth is that drug use is the only way to ease this suffering for too many people abandoned by dysfunctional families, dysfunctional education, and dysfunctional healthcare systems.

Middle-class Europeans and Americans like me feel very uncomfortable even witnessing this suffering as passersby. We are disturbed by seeing homeless people scoring a fix in dark alleys and underground locations. Not only because we are disgusted (surely, we are), but also because we feel a certain moral insecurity in our own privileged position. We want to believe that we live in a just world where everyone gets what they deserve. We like to believe that everything we have achieved is because we are talented and virtuous. We are afraid to be reminded that the world we live in is unjust and that if we happened to be born into a less advantaged family, we could end up exactly where they are.

Although concerns about growing homelessness and street drug use can be valid, using the criminal justice system and law enforcement as tools for urban remodelling will lead to a dead end. Decriminalisation is necessary to connect marginalised people who use drugs into society; however, it will not change anything overnight, and it is not sufficient. It needs to be supplemented with a long-term strategy to improve social inclusion, invest in housing and create protected workplaces, educational institutions, treatment centres, and harm reduction programs that are sensitive to the specific needs of local communities. Local experiments to regulate substance use and provide controlled access to people who struggle with dependence should be introduced.

It is reasonable to expect that innovative social policies, such as decriminalisation or regulation experiments, should be carefully monitored and evaluated. However, these evaluations should be made by professionals, researchers, and people with lived experience. Policymakers should listen to those who present evidence rather than to those who can generate negative press coverage through political and business interests. The evidence is there, published by researchers in peer-reviewed papers, demonstrating that the reform in Oregon has produced positive results. Thanks to Measure 110, more people can access services.

Drug policy reformers and harm reduction advocates should learn from the dangerous trends of re-criminalisation too. Educating the public about what decriminalisation is is just as important as explaining what it is not: it is not a universal panacea (IDPC has an excellent e-course on decrim). We should be careful about using international examples, such as Portugal, to raise false expectations. The public should understand that the main problem is not drug use. The main problem is that large segments of society are traumatised and excluded and feel isolated, alienated, and disconnected. This is what really fuels the so-called “drug crisis”, whether it manifests in overdoses or crime.

I have learnt from Dr. Gabor Mate, a friend and mentor of mine, that trauma is disconnection, and healing from trauma is reconnection to ourselves and others. To live an authentic life and find what the renowned psychologist Viktor Frankl identified as the most important element of happiness: meaning, we need the same healing on a societal level. We, as a society, need to reconnect with marginalised people and not re-criminalise them.

Peter Sarosi


There is a joke about a policeman who is patrolling the streets late one night when he sees a drunk man down on all fours, crawling on his hands and knees on the road, searching for something on the ground under the streetlight.

“Hello, what have you lost?” the policeman asks.
“I am searching for my key,” the drunk man answers.
“Ok, I will help you look,” says the policeman and joins the drunkard in his search.

After a while, the policeman asks, “Are you sure, sir, that you dropped your key here?”
“No, actually over there, in front of my house.”
“So why are you searching for it in the street?”
“Because there is more light here.”

When governments design drug policies, they often do the same as this drunk man. They look for an explanation and a solution where there is none. Because they feel more comfortable solving complex social problems with simplistic tools rather than exploring difficult territories where the real solutions lie: to build solidarity, social equality and justice.