Ash: The U.S. should move toward drug decriminalization

CJ Ash

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or editorial board.

The United States is facing an opioid epidemic, and Colorado is no exception. According to a 2017 study by WalletHub, Colorado has the third worst drug problem in the nation. Now, the study links marijuana in with all illegal drugs, but the numbers are still worrisome. From 2012 to 2014, treatment admissions have tripled for the addictions of hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone and fentanyl. Overdoses are up in almost every county, and Colorado has the highest rates of death by overdose of any state. 


By every measure and instance, the war on drugs in America has been a complete and catastrophic failure. Being tough on people who use and sell drugs has filled America’s jails and prisons with non-violent criminals, and done very little to impact crime and addiction in any way. The answer must now be to decriminalize both the use and the possession of drugs. 

Yes, the war on drugs was, is and continues to be an absolute failure. Each year, law enforcement makes more than 1.5 million drug arrests.  That’s more than all the arrests of all violent crimes combined. More than 80 percent of those arrests are for possession alone. In 2016, roughly 64,000 people in the US died from drug overdoses. To put that number in perspective, that’s about the same number of people that died in the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghan wars.

The voices for drug decriminalization are getting louder. A group of 22 top scientists convened by John Hopkins University called for the decriminalization of all nonviolent drug use and possession.

(Photo credit: National Survey on Drug Use and Health)

Referencing the prohibition-esque drug policies of the last 50 years, the study said that the policies, ” directly and indirectly contribute to lethal violence, disease, discrimination, forced displacement, injustice and the undermining of people’s right to health.” Even the UN has called for worldwide drug decriminalization

Portugal is probably the world’s most famous case, as they decriminalized the use all drugs in 2001. As a nation, they decided to treat drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one. The drugs themselves were kept illegal, but those caught were given fines or referred to a rehabilitation program. It is important to note that Portugal is its own distinct country, with its own respective culture and government. However, it’s still helpful to analyze the results of such a groundbreaking policy. 

The results are pretty clear. Drug use declined amongst all age groups, overdose deaths have plummeted to the second lowest levels in the EU, and the number of people arrested for criminal drug offenses decreased by 60%. 

The Czech Republic has removed penalties for limited personal use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD, and other substances. As a result, their overdose percentages match those of Portugal, well below the EU average. 

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse speaks strongly against decriminalization. 

The U.S. has some 60 million smokers, up to 20 million alcoholics and alcohol misusers, but only around 6 million illegal drug addicts. If illegal drugs were easier to obtain, this figure would rise.

Colorado’s results paint a different picture. Post-legalization, studies have shown little to no increase in marijuana usage. 

While Colorado has legalized the possession and recreational use of marijuana, the possession of most substances remains a felony in the state. Even with states legalizing pot, marijuana is still technically illegal under federal law. Drug crimes for the possession of even the smallest amount of heroin or methamphetamine can land someone in jail for up to 18 months. 


This trend cannot be ignored. America must come up with a new strategy to combat addiction and overdose. It would be wise to consider countries that have undergone similar experiences and apply it here at home. 

Collegian opinion reporter CJ Ash can be reached a or on Twitter @Cee_Jay_Ash