Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang promises in his platform to “decriminalize the possession and use of small amounts of opioids,” citing similar policy in Portugal to address their own addiction crisis. However, in his April 14 CNN Town Hall, moderator Ana Cabrera pushed Yang about the specifics of his drug decriminalization policy; would he decriminalize drugs like cocaine as well?
Yang weakly negated, mustering only that “the addiction has very different features” as justification. However, Yang’s response shows both a poor understanding of drug addiction and an even worse understanding of Portugal’s drug policy. In addition, Yang’s inconsistent approach goes against the universal nature of many of his other policies.
Cocaine at a Glance
Yang is correct that cocaine and opioids have drastically different effects on the human body and mind. Cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant derived from the coca plant, while opioids such as heroin, fentanyl, and many prescription painkillers are extremely sedative.
However, despite falling under different classes, the two drugs have much in common. Both cocaine and opioids like heroin are highly euphoric and extremely addictive. In addition, both have immense negative effects as a result of heavy use. In the long-term, regular cocaine usage can lead to psychosis, severe cardiovascular damage, and strong withdrawal in regular users attempting to quit. Heavy heroin usage can result in asphyxiation due to severe respiratory depression; other deaths are often a result of breathing in vomit (as one might with alcohol).
Both drugs are also widespread; a 2007 UN report estimated that 2.8% of American adults had used cocaine in the last year, while 1.7 million Americans suffered from opioid addiction in 2017 (and around 600 thousand from heroin addiction). Both are highly dangerous; in 2017, prescription opioids killed 17,029 people, while heroin was responsible for 15,482 deaths. However, in the same year, cocaine was involved in 13,942 deaths. Moreover, cocaine is the second-most-deadly illegal drug and kills more black Americans than heroin. Andrew Yang’s decriminalization policy targets exclusively opioid use, ignoring the thousands of deaths from cocaine and other stimulants.
Decriminalization in Portugal
Although Yang deserves praise for bringing more attention to Portugal’s drug policy, he himself seems flaky on its details. Following the fall of Portugal’s decades-long autocratic regime, the country reopened its doors to international trade and travel in 1974. When drugs like heroin immediately hit Portugal, the developing country lacked the resources to tackle the problem adequately. By the 80s, opioid addiction affected one in ten Portuguese citizens.
However, Portugal did not enact its current policy of total drug decriminalization until 2001. According to the policy, while drug dealers are still punished, users carrying less than a 10-day supply of narcotics will incur no legal penalty beyond confiscation. Addicts will subsequently be able to meet with social workers, psychologists, and lawyers to learn about treatment options. Penalties, if any, include community service or bans on entering popular drug locations.
Did it Work?
Portugal’s decriminalization policy has had profound effects on addiction nationwide. For one, the country has made remarkable steps in disease prevention. According to Leafly studies, only 40 intravenous drug users tested positive for HIV in 2014, down from 1,482 in 2000. Moreover, 96% of those suffering from Hepatitis C have been cured following treatment. In addition, although lifetime drug use has fluctuated, “problematic” drug use has decreased 10% since the policy’s introduction. Drug use is also way below Portugal’s neighbors: in 2012, per capita cocaine use was at one-tenth of Spain’s and one-fifth of France’s.
Portugal’s drug decriminalization policy has not magically resolved the country’s problems. Medicinal marijuana has only been available since last summer, and recreational cannabis remains a distant thought in the national consciousness. There are only three safe injection sites in all of Portugal, all of which were established last year. Leafly notes that in the years immediately following the policy’s introduction, homicides rose 60% through 2007 (although they have since nearly reached former levels). Nonetheless, the overall impact of drug decriminalization on societal health has largely been positive.
Why Andrew Yang Falls Short
Andrew Yang loves to tout Portugal’s drug decriminalization success story. His own policy would certainly be a meaningful step forward in America’s drug conversation. However, ultimately it would not match Portugal, as it is not nearly as far-reaching in scope. Thus far, Yang has been adamant that his own decriminalization policy would extend exclusively to opioids.
Yang’s focus on opioid decriminalization makes sense. The current crisis has dominated headlines for the last few years. Many communities ravaged by opioid addiction are suffering the effects of automation, another hot button issue for the candidate. Many have implicated both issues in Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, so those that the opioid crisis has affected are prime candidates for Yang’s campaigning.
As it stands, Yang’s policy would limit prosecution-free access to healthcare and resources to just a small subset of addicts. According to journalist Maia Szalavitz, it is “impossible to remove the stigma of addiction while drug use remains illegal”. Yang’s policy would continue to stigmatize a large portion of the drug-using population and further disincentivize them from seeking help for fear of legal repercussions.
Undoubtedly, cocaine carries a reputation as being a party drug for wealthy investment bankers and trust fund kids. However, the scope of cocaine addiction seems to extend across social strata. In fact, a 2014 study found that adolescents in single-parent households were more likely to use cocaine than those with both parents present. Likewise, those with low and moderate education were more likely to use than those with high education.
Most significantly, Yang’s decriminalization policy runs against the message of common humanity he has championed on the campaign trail. His flagship UBI policy would apply to every American adult, not just a specific subset of the population. An addict’s right to receive care without criminal charges should not be contingent on the substances he is addicted to. Andrew Yang should revisit his policy and extend decriminalization to all drugs, and not just those trending in the news.
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