American Opinion: We can't surrender in war on drugs


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The war on drugs has been long, hard-fought, and expensive.

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Since the 1970s, America has battled wave after wave of new, more lethal drugs hitting our streets — from crack cocaine to heroin, crystal meth, OxyContin, fentanyl and synthetics, to name a few. The Centers for Disease Control puts the death by opioid overdose tally at nearly 500,000 people from 1999 to 2019.

There are those who would declare the war over, that the drugs have won and surrender the only option.

They are wrong.

Proponents of decriminalizing drugs often point to Portugal as a model. In 2001, the country became the first to decriminalize drugs. As Time reported, drug dealers still go to prison. But anyone caught with less than a 10-day supply of any drug is typically sent to a local commission, consisting of a doctor, lawyer and social worker, where they learn about treatment and available medical services.


Portugal has government-funded health care for its citizens, and reportedly took two years to put together the new system where drug abuse became a medical issue rather than a criminal one.

Oregon learned the hard way that preparation and funding are key when it looked to Portugal at its own decriminalization launch in 2021.

Supporters of decriminalization faced a fractured, dysfunctional and underfunded treatment system that wasn’t at all ready to handle an influx of more people seeking treatment, as NPR reported.

The Massachusetts Legislature has also entertained decriminalization. Called “An Act relative to harm reduction and racial equality,” two bills were first introduced to both legislative bodies in March of last year, as the Herald reported. S.1277 and H.2119 both sat quietly in legislative committee until September, when lawmakers held a virtual hearing on the bills. The bills made their way through committees, before the House version was referred to a study order. That effectively ended its progress.

Those who want drug policy changed see hope in even these efforts. “The war on drugs has failed. The experience of the last few decades shows arresting and jailing people for drug use does not work,” Emily Kaltenbach, a senior director with the Drug Policy Alliance told the Herald.

“Drugs are more potent, readily available, cheaper than ever before and people are cycling through prison with zero chance of access to recovery services. The approach that Massachusetts is considering offers people a new option — a health-based approach,” she said.

Without question, getting addicts in recovery and off drugs is of primary importance.

But this particular plan has many opportunities for collateral damage.


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Illegal drugs are smuggled into Massachusetts from around the world, landing in cities like Boston and Lawrence. The gangs behind this don’t limit their activity to drugs. Late last month, 10 Boston gang members and associates were convicted of racketeering, drug and firearms charges, and court records describe one Dorchester gang as involved in murders, attempted murders, armed robberies, drug trafficking and sex trafficking.

While there are those addicts who would choose treatment and get clean if drugs were decriminalized, that won’t stop dealers from looking for fresh victims.

Oregon is the bellwether: Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton has told reporters the change in the law has resulted in a spike in overdose deaths and property crimes.

We have to win this war, not desert the battle.

This American Opinion editorial is the opinion of the editorial board of the Boston Herald.

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