• January 26, 2021

Debate Over Decriminalizing All Drugs Moves to Congress

 Debate Over Decriminalizing All Drugs Moves to Congress

Photo by Matt Laslo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Things got awkward for some national Democrats this November when Oregonians overwhelmingly voted against Democratic talking points and made possession of smaller amounts of federally illegal drugs — like heroin, cocaine, LSD, and meth, etc. — more like a traffic violation (a mere $100 fine) than like a murder.

What was lost by many politicians and pundits alike about Oregon’s move to decriminalize most drugs was that the effort was aimed at de-stigmatizing substance abuse and abusers. The ballot-measure-turned-state-law is intended to give addicts a new path, one that involves doctors and mental health experts, not prison. That’s how it was pitched, and it soared through with 58.46% support.

Oregonians have — once again — changed the national conversation. And they have some allies in the nation’s capital when it comes to substance abuse.

“It’s a problem of one’s mental health or one’s, just, general physical health,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told The News Station at the Capitol. “And there is no possible way that you can treat a medical issue if your condition is criminalized.”   

Much of the GOP rhetoric around even decriminalizing marijuana — let alone other substances — nationally has centered on children gaining easy access, but research has shown declines in teen usage in states that now regulate marijuana like alcohol.

When it comes to removing criminal punishment for other substances, proponents say, the tides are turning. That’s not because Americans want easy access to all ‘illicit’ substances; rather, it’s because many people want to curtail the stigma that’s led to the overdose epidemic.

That’s why Ocasio-Cortez argues voters in Oregon and elsewhere aren’t voting in favor of open-air drug markets. They’re voting to end the broken system of mass incarceration that’s engulfed most of America. 

“They’re not saying, ‘We want to be Amsterdam.’ They’re saying, ‘We want to be Portugal.’ We as a society want to recognize that addiction is not first and foremost a problem of criminality; it’s a problem of public health,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley is no AOC. Besides being a white male who is 64-years-old, he’s dry (as in, he’s a tad boring, folks) and businesslike (he was a businessman after all). Still, he voted for his state’s measure to basically decriminalize all drugs.

“I supported it,” Merkley told The News Station while walking next to the trams that run under the Capitol. “I just think we have to try different strategies that might work better, because the strategy we’re on doesn’t work. This is massively expensive — takes funds from every other thing, such as health care and education and public safety and infrastructure.”  

The Democrat is no fan of substances. But substances were never supposed to be the point.

“Putting people in prison doesn’t help them end their addiction. It’s extraordinarily expensive to lock someone up, so if the resources can be better applied to helping people break their addiction, that also means less crime to finance their addiction. I’m hoping that’s the way it ends up,” Merkley said.

Last year, the Cato Institute — a Washington-based, libertarian think tank — conducted a national survey that found 55% of Americans support decriminalizing all ‘drugs.’ That’s giving Merkley and other progressives some hope that they have some GOP allies in the laissez-faire right.

“I think, in general, I’d like to see drug addiction treated more as a health problem and less as an incarceration problem,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told The News Station while walking underneath the Capitol.

Other Republicans haven’t got a libertarian bone in their being.

“Sometimes I think that the world is turned upside down when you have a state, I think it’s Oregon, that bans plastic straws but legalizes cocaine and heroin. It just is insane to me,” Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) told her colleagues last week during the House floor debate on a measure to federally decriminalize marijuana.

One of the loudest proponents of that marijuana measure is Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. While the co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus kept his floor remarks confined to cannabis, he’s all in on decriminalization of other things. 

“I got into this with the marijuana decriminalization as part of an effort in Oregon — it was a study about how we should deal with the social impacts of areas like marijuana, like alcohol. We used to criminalize somebody who was a late-stage, chronic alcoholic. We put them in jail. Well, now we’re not doing that so much [anymore], we’re dealing with treatment,” Blumenauer answered in response to a question from The News Station in a Zoom-conference after the bipartisan marijuana measure passed the House.

The Democrat is a leading general in the war against the war on ‘drugs.’ This new war is aimed at decriminalizing addiction, not humans.

“And I do think that what’s going to happen over the next 10 years — not that we’re going to legalize all those drugs, but we’re not going to criminalize an addict. They are sick. We want them to have help,” Blumenauer said. “And it’s more humane to do that in terms of treatment, rather than putting people in jail.”

Still, even Blumenauer’s Democratic co-chair on the Cannabis Caucus, Rep. Barbara Lee, remains light years away from him on the topic of decriminalizing all drugs.

“This is about marijuana,” Lee told The News Station on the same call as Blumenauer right after the MORE Act passed. “It’s about making sure that — there have been over 600,000 arrests annually as it relates to these laws — and that people of color, I want to reemphasize this, again, are almost four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than their white counterparts. I think that’s the issue that we’re focused on. And the racial justice, racial equity issue is very specific and unique to marijuana.” 

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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