Could Legalizing All Drugs Benefit the US?
Former iCore CEO Steve Canton stands up for the cause.
The United States is home to close to 5% of the world’s population, but almost a quarter of its prisoners.
These numbers from the World Prison Population List, published by the United Kingdom-based International Center for Prison Studies, are startling.
How does this happen, you might ask? Well, consider that roughly half of the prisoners in the United States are incarcerated due to drug law violations, according to drugpolicyfacts.org.
This culture of mass criminalization developed largely as a result of the “war on drugs” that began in the 1980s,in which aggressive policing and incarceration became the solution for drugs and other social problems.
But, perhaps surprisingly, increasingly harsh drug policies didn’t seem to make a difference. Despite the billions of dollars spent on cracking down on drug users, the United States went on to suffer an epidemic of addiction.
An estimated 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2019 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than the combined death tolls for Americans in the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq Wars, according to Time Magazine.
Strict drug laws don’t seem to be working. So what if there is a different way?
Portugal may have the answer.
In 2001, Portugal made history by becoming the first country in the world to abolish criminal penalties for consumption and possession of all drugs. ALL drugs. From marijuana to heroin.
The country took a radical chance on legalization while in the grips of its own drug epidemic that ramped up in the late 90s.
In the 20 years since, the drug-induced death rate in Portugal has dropped to some of the lowest in the European Union, at six deaths per million people, according to transformdrugs.org, and one one-fiftieth the death rate of the United States. Drug use declined overall among the 15 to 24-year-old population, those most at risk of trying drugs. And HIV acquired from drug use has dropped significantly from 519 people diagnosed in 2000 to just 13 in 2019.
What is behind these numbers besides legalization?
Portugal chose to treat drug addiction as a medical issue rather than a criminal one by opening its first supervised drug injection site in 2003.
Research supports that sites like these reduce the criminal activity associated with drugs and reduce the behaviors linked to HIV and Hepatitis C transmission.
Here in the United States, while the drumbeat to legalize recreational cannabis grows louder, a call to legalize all drugs seems much harder to hear.
Some, however, are standing up and speaking out for legalization. Andrew Yang, a former 2020 presidential candidate, expressed his support for legalizing opioids in an effort to slow the epidemic, as did former Representative Beto O’Rourke (D-TX).
Stephen Canton, a Florida-based business leader and former CEO of Fortune 5000 telecommunications company iCore, is a staunch supporter of legalization. While he has yet to formally put his hat in the ring to run for office in Florida, he shares that broad legalization would be a part of his platform.
“It’s time,” he said. “There is a massive reduction in the prison population with legalization. It also cleans up the prison population who are inside and addicted to drugs.”
Canton advocates for creating dispensaries for all drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamines. “Have drug counselors there who offer help without judgment,” he says. “Educate addicts. Keep them safe. Offer help for a better life.”
Legalization will reduce the black market for drugs, Canton adds, which he says is its own huge economy. And could also reduce the sex trafficking that grows around the illegal drug market.
Creating prisoners was once proof that a particular elected official or initiative was “tough on crime” and, therefore, making the community safer. But as the recent research shows, such measures do not seem to reduce crime rates.
In addition, former prisoners face high rates of recidivism, sparse resources, and harsh stigma, making it increasingly difficult to return to and maintain a space in civilian life, according to nonprofits like Persevere, which advocates for the incarcerated.
Legalization supporters like Canton believe that the legalization of narcotics would not only reduce drug-related crimes but would also offer numerous economic opportunities in the forms of dispensaries, processing plants, and peripheral markets.
Most importantly to Canton, legalization benefits the health of all of society.
“An addict is someone’s son, mother, friend….,” says Canton. “Decriminalize their behavior and get them real help. Give them hope for the future.”