Written By: Anton Sawyer
Statistically Speaking, The ONLY Way To Win The War On Drugs Is By Legalizing Everything
For those who regularly read this webzine—the “Truthers”—you may have noticed a pattern towards the chosen topics of the articles which have been published recently; drug addiction and recovery. Though I try not to drag topics through the mud via repetition by trying to keep them varied and interesting, for me it has become another year, and another criminal sentencing or obituary column. Over the last decade, one-quarter of all the friends I had during the first round of my serious drug addiction (ages 16-22) are either dead or in prison.
With the opioid plague still spreading like wildfire across the nation, I will always keep an eye out for innovative ways that realistically address addiction and how to best fight it. And this is the topic of today’s article; a potential path to realistically stemming addiction and overdose deaths on a grand scale … by legalizing every drug there is. Though initially counterintuitive to many who have been raised in the zero-tolerance landscape that is pervasive in the United States, there is both logic and science to back up the claim that this “anything goes” policy could be incredibly effective, and one that the US should seriously consider adopting.
In an attempt to maintain complete transparency, all research and statistical fact-checking for all articles can be found in the bibliography linked here.
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Another reason this topic of substances and recovery has been somewhat prevalent is due to a recent trip I took to Denver, Colorado. Given my medical need for cannabis, Denver could be considered a “bastion of freedom” for someone like me.
A quick recap of the medical need for cannabis I speak of goes like this. In the mid-2000s I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. I saw a GI who wrote me a prescription (on my first visit) of 120 pills per month with 12 refills—it was a year’s worth all at once. My life became a living nightmare of dependency. In the mid-2010s I got with a physician who helped wean me down and prescribed a harm-reduction method to my addiction rather than just cutting everything off cold-turkey. One of the elements we utilized was “California Sober”; using whole-flower cannabis as a pain control method for my Crohn’s flare-ups as opposed to opioids.
Two years of weaning off opioids later, along with educating myself as to the minutia of cannabis/pain management knowledge, my life became nowhere near as horrific as it had been. During times in life when I’ve had to quit smoking cannabis for whatever reason, the worst problems that occur are a couple of days where I’m cranky due to insomnia. After about a week, I’m fine.
Though cannabis is legal where I currently reside for medicinal use, it’s still an incredibly red state with an unpleasant attitude from the legislature that it even has to admit that the Devil’s lettuce is legally treated as a legitimate medicine AT ALL. Naturally, this attitude has carried over to a big portion of the constituency as well. The spread of this bias has also allowed for local government inaction and red tape to occur which has prevented dispensaries from pricing whole-flower in such a way as to be financially accessible to most—if not all—patients. The reality is that in 2022, it is much cheaper to go to your local person in places where cannabis is legal for only medicinal use; not just my state, but certain others which have a conservative ideological prevalence as well. I feel this trend will continue unabated until the state adopts the fact that cannabis is no longer a deadly narcotic. It will really take a turn for the better when those local governments start lending a legal hand when possible to help the costs come down to assist even the most economically disadvantaged patients.
Keeping this in mind, along with the fact that cannabis is legal recreationally (in addition to medicinally), it should come as no surprise that the prices of whole-flower cannabis in Denver are insanely low.
Yes, dispensaries vary in quality and in pricing. As someone who once made it a point to hit up as many of them as I could when I've visited other states, I’ve run the gamut. I’ve been to places where you feel like you’re picking up from the guy down the street as you watch the budtender pull out a giant jar, glove up, and drop the buds on a digital scale in front of you before bagging it up. I’ve also been to places where you can only look at the product through high-end displays, with high-end prices to match.
But the economics of the pricing in Denver, even for just the mid-tier dispensaries, is such to where it would drive every mid-level dealer in town out of business. Let’s look at the numbers.
The person who I get my green prescriptions through will be referred to as “Dr. X,” and I will also treat them as gender-neutral.
Dr. X. has been giving reasonably priced whole-flower cannabis to people to help them with various medical ailments for six years. Because of their empathetic nature, and understanding of cannabis as a medicine, Dr. X doesn’t sell for much more than cost. Though moving around a quarter pound of flower a week, they only average around $20,000 a year in profits—which isn’t that much given the level of product pushed. When I told this person the prices that were available in Denver, they admitted it would decimate what profits they do make. Dr. X said that with whole-flower, they would lose 70% profit margin on increments sold weighing less than an ounce, and 50% on any increments sold weighing over that same amount.
Even if you only have a high-school education when it comes to economics such as myself, it makes sense.
The financials bear out such that with the way Denver has been able to set their cannabis industry, it could wipe out every mid-level dealer because of sheer volume. Due to the number of state-sanctioned growers that are currently in production, there is no way that anyone without a serious drug-trafficking stranglehold on an area could survive. Unless you were a kingpin that was moving kilos upon kilos of the stuff, the volume the legal industry has at its disposal is simply too much to keep up with.
If the US, as a nation, adopted this approach of outpricing the illegal drug trade as a first step, we would be well on our way. But this only pertains to one drug: cannabis. And when I said all drugs need to be legal, I meant all of them. To do this, we need to look towards Europe and the uber-successful drug policy adopted by Portugal earlier this century in which they did indeed, legalize it all.
With the levels of success achieved from this policy in comparison to the rest of the European Union when fighting overdose deaths (and literally every other metric when it comes to curbing the dangerous endgame that’s associated with drug addiction), it shows that there is hope when it comes to innovative ways to stem the scourges of addiction.
The Transform Drug Policy Foundation—whose goal is to educate about public health, human rights, and social justice through drug policy reform—did a comprehensive study in 2021 examining the mass legalization in Portugal 20 years later and its overall impact.
If you don’t know the entire story, in 2001, Portugal decriminalized the personal possession of all drugs as part of a wider re-orientation of policy towards a health-led approach. Possessing drugs for personal use is instead treated as an administrative offense, meaning it is no longer punishable by imprisonment and does not result in a criminal record and associated stigma. Drugs are, however, still confiscated if you have more than 10-days’ worth of personal use, and possession may result in administrative penalties such as fines or community service.
Two decades into this program, Portugal has an overall lower overdose count than the rest of Europe and has yet to reach its national record of 76 recorded deaths in one year (2001). In real terms, drug death rates in Portugal remain some of the lowest in the EU. In 2019 there were only six deaths per million among people aged 15-64, compared to the EU average of 23.7 deaths per million.
Not only that, but because of its success, the Portugal model has also seen incredible reductions in crime. In 2001, over 40% of the sentenced Portuguese prison population were held for drug offenses, considerably above the European average, and 70% of reported crime was associated with drugs. While the European average has gradually risen over the past twenty years (from 14% to 18%), the proportion of people sentenced for drug offenses in Portuguese prisons has fallen dramatically to 15.7% in 2019—now below the European average.
Levels of drug use in Portugal have been consistently below the European average over the past twenty years. This is particularly the case among younger people. Portugal has some of the lowest usage rates in Europe among those between the ages of 15-34. Also, as of 2015, there were an estimated 33,290 “high risk” opioid users in Portugal. However, it is lower than when decriminalization was established in 2001.
Another portion of the drug reform policy included wide-reaching needle and syringe programs aimed at reducing the risk of infection among people who inject drugs. In 2001, Portugal had 1,287 new HIV diagnoses attributed to injecting drug use. It had over 50% of all new HIV diagnoses attributed to injecting drug use in the EU in 2001 and 2002 despite having just 2% of the EU population. In 2019, with only 16 new diagnoses, it only had 1.68% of the EU total.
The last key component to this policy initiative I need to address is the fact that there is more government assistance in getting rehabilitation over incarceration.
Yes, if you want to kill yourself slowly with addiction, per the Portugal policy, you can. It truly puts the responsibility on the addict to get sober, rather than jamming up a rehabilitation system filled with people who are just biding their time until the calendar says they can use again. And if you truly want to clean up your life, there are far more options. The number of people in Portugal receiving drug addiction treatment rose, according to a study by Hannah Laqueuer—assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of California, Davis. As of 2008, three-quarters of those with opioid use disorder were receiving medication-assisted treatment. By comparison, less than half of Americans who could benefit from medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction receive it. And the numbers of those in treatment continue to rise in Portugal due to the continuation of these programs.
The numbers are pretty clear. When you legalize substances and offer help as opposed to punishment and put the onus on the addict as opposed to keeping them locked up, the results show that there is less death, less disease, and more willingness to voluntarily get help. Not to mention, due to the volume and legal methods of attainment offered by the government, the feds could price out most of those who continue to sell illegally. The market would bear it out simply due to the metrics.
Currently in America, Portland, Oregon is the only place that has adopted a drug policy similar to the one in Portugal. A policy that decriminalizes a small amount of any drugs (called Measure 110) and has focused on spending taxpayer dole on self-rehabilitation over-incarceration. Having been passed in November of 2020, only the beneficiary groups and government allocations have been figured out after the first year; there have yet to be any concrete numbers as to its overall impact. It’s something to watch, and once some of the numbers begin to trickle out, a future article will be written to address the results.
I know that “legalize it” has been used as a somewhat dubious phrase over the years. Whether utilized as a catchphrase by the hippy movement of the ’60s or when humorously used by some drunkard when commenting on an obviously illegal situation, it isn’t an idea that’s half-bad in reality. The numbers are what they are; both good (the potentials provided in this piece) and bad (the current trajectory we see America heading). I only hope that the road to these potentially positive outcomes becoming a standard in the US doesn’t continue to be littered with the bodies of unnecessary deaths. Only time will tell.
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