States wave white flags as America slowly surrenders to war on drugs

Sydney Chin, Section Editor

On November 4, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize the possession of hard drugs. This, among other state legislation, reflects America’s slow but continuous battle over drugs. Many other states are expected to follow in Oregon’s footsteps on drug reform for the future.

The evolution of addictive substances has led to major problems in the U.S, with addiction and overdose at the forefront of the discussion. In 2018, The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that more than 67,300 Americans died from a drug overdose.

Hard drugs are considered to pose the greatest risk to the user’s health, they include heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, oxycontin, and nicotine. Soft drugs, considered to be less addictive but just as dangerous, include cannabis, LSD, and DMT. Overuse of any of these substances can cause heart conditions, lung disease, seizures, brain damage, and sometimes death.

It would be a common assumption that drug legislation was created to protect the people from addiction and harm, but that would be far from the truth. The first attempts at drug laws were less about the substance and more about the offender. 

For example, The Drug Policy Alliance explains that the first anti-opium laws in the 1870s were directed at Chinese immigrants. Additionally, cocaine laws in the 1900s were directed at black men and marijuana laws in the 1920s were directed at Mexicans. 

At the time, the media also played a role in the image of drug users. Eventually, their examples of drug addicts shifted from whites to nonwhites, building negative stereotypes, and contributing to unfair enforcement.

It is important to note that the first drug laws were not solely created to put immigrants and minorities at a disadvantage. There is another part of the story. The first of these laws were also aimed at saving white youth from falling victim to hard drugs.

Take cocaine as an example. George Fisher, a criminal law specialist, describes the drug’s origins. Once used as an anesthetic for surgeries, cocaine became prevalent in the pharmaceutical industry as doctors and patients became addicted to the drug. In order to mitigate the effects of cocaine, states began to ban the drug. The first being Oregon in 1887, followed by Montana, Colorado, Illinois, and Massachusetts.

This problem, however, was not much of a fight until President Richard Nixon declared that America would begin a “war on drugs,” in 1971. During Nixon’s presidency, federal control agencies were expanded, mandatory sentencing was increased, and no-knock warrants were established. 

Today, several states are slowly reforming their decade-old laws. Recently, as a step toward reducing these regulations, Oregon has passed Measure 110. This historic piece of legislation has decriminalized the possession of hard drugs in small amounts. Now, the penalty will involve paying a $100 fine or attending an addiction recovery center. Planning to take effect on February first, the bill also helps fund treatment and harm-reduction efforts.

New Jersey has also taken part. On November third, the state voted to legalize recreational marijuana, becoming one of the eleven states to do so. Although the process has been delayed due to license and funding disagreements, it is expected to be passed in mid-December.

Both these changes indicate a new approach to handling drugs. The strict imprisonment solution has become less popular, with many people vouching for a more health and rehabilitation based method. Of course, their decision is not without controversy.

“I do not agree with the decision,” expressed junior Roudchelle Achille. “Drugs are addicting and can affect people’s life negatively in a physical, social, and economic way. Plus many people are still dying from addiction and overdose.”

In Palm Beach County, the recreational use of drugs by teens has maintained a problem. In 2017, the Palm Beach County Substance Awareness Coalition reported that “While cigarette smoking by youth has dramatically declined over the past decade, more than three times as many Palm Beach County high school students and five times as many middle school students are current users of e-cigarettes.”

“Most of my friends vape,” said a junior who chose to remain anonymous.  “There are only two who don’t. I don’t see the need for laws against weed, but for more serious drugs I understand.”

Clearly, drug use is still a prominent problem in America, but states like Oregon and New Jersey are paving the way for a new solution to be tested. With the fluctuating rates of addiction and overdose in the U.S, these states have taken action to reform their old policies. The war on drugs has a long history, rooted in fear and discrimination; however, the era of drug abuse may soon be fixed with the new rehabilitation based approach. Only time will tell, but more states are expected to follow in the footsteps of Oregon and New Jersey in the future.

For more information please visit: