Opinion: States should move to decriminalize drug use

States across the U.S. should consider following the lead of Oregon, which recently passed a ballot initiative decriminalizing the personal possession of all drugs, according to Mary Bassett of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In a November 16, 2020 opinion piece in the New York Daily News, Bassett, François-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, wrote that Oregon’s move “will end the use of a nefarious tool of systemic oppression that disproportionately subjugated Black and Latino people for the better half of a century.” Cost-savings from decriminalization will be used to fund health and harm reduction services for people with drug addictions.

Bassett, who served as a doctor in Harlem in the 1980s and later as health commissioner of New York City, wrote, “I saw first-hand the devastation wrought by the criminalization of drug use,” particularly among communities of color. Fear of punishment drove drug use underground, making overdoses more likely. The drug war led to thousands of arrests of Black people for drug violations, mostly for possession, she noted. In addition, drug convictions—which create barriers to housing, education, and employment—have entrenched whole communities in generations of poverty.

She wrote that during her tenure as health commissioner, she advocated for moving away from punishing people struggling with addiction to a “health and evidence-based approach” that included increasing voluntary drug treatment and reducing drug possession arrests.

“As the benefits of Oregon’s bold decision become apparent over the coming years, I hope more states—and eventually the federal government—follow this path toward health and justice for all,” Bassett wrote.

Read Mary Bassett’s New York Daily News article: Who will follow Oregon’s lead on drugs?