We know Mayor Buttigieg's drug decriminalization plan works — ask Portugal
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Presidential hopeful Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegOmar: Biden not the candidate to 'tackle a lot of the systematic challenges that we have' Seven takeaways from a busy Democratic presidential campaign weekend in Iowa Democrats go all out to court young voters for 2020 MORE, mayor of South Bend, Ind., recently released a comprehensive plan to address mental health and drug addiction. Most notably, his plan commits to decriminalize all drug possession in his first term. Decriminalization eliminates criminal penalties for the personal use or possession of any drug, while selling remains illegal.

It’s a pragmatic approach that recognizes someone caught with a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use would benefit far more from being connected to treatment, or other social services, than criminalization. While criminal justice reform and legalization of marijuana have been hot topics in primary debates, Mayor Buttigieg’s vision would fundamentally shift federal policies to treat drug use and misuse as a matter of public health and challenge other candidates to also consider this time-tested policy solution already in place across Europe.

In recent years, U.S. law enforcement agencies made nearly 1.5 million drug arrests – more than for all violent crimes combined. The overwhelming majority – more than 80 percent – are for possession only and involve no violent offense. Mayor Buttigieg’s plan aims to reduce incarceration by 75 percent through expanded drug treatment and mental health services.

Our antiquated approach continues to cost us billions that could instead be redirected into drug and mental health treatment, job training and programs for at-risk youth. Increasing opportunities for people to stabilize their lives also centers equity. The profound racial and ethnic disparities of harsh policing and mass criminalization not only affect Black and Latinx men and women at alarming rates but also levy heavy costs on their futures. Collateral consequences from drug arrests can include the loss of federal financial aid, eviction from public housing, disqualification from a wide range of occupational licenses, loss of the right to vote and denial of public assistance.

Criminalization has also been a big driver of the overdose crisis. Fear of arrest is the most common reason that witnesses do not immediately call 911 in the event of an overdose. The combination of fear of legal repercussions and stigma associated with drug use pushes people to the margins, making it more difficult to provide them the help they need to transform their lives.

While Mayor Buttigieg’s plan may test the political imaginations of other candidates, it’s actually a decades-old, wildly successful public health approach embraced by the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and — most notably — Portugal.

In 1999, Portugal was experiencing an HIV and AIDS crisis among injection drug users paired with a dramatic increase in drug-related deaths. In response, Portuguese legislators enacted comprehensive decriminalization in 2001. Under the reform, criminal penalties for low-level possession and consumption were eliminated and access to supervised consumption sites, syringe exchanges and treatment options expanded.

The result? The number of people arrested and sent to criminal courts annually decreased by 60 percent. The percentage of newly diagnosed HIV infections associated with drug use dropped from 52 percent in 2000 to a low of approximately 5 percent in 2015. And drug overdose fatalities also dropped by 85 percent between 1999 and 2015.

While Portugal’s approach helps people struggling with chaotic use, drug courts in the United States actually perpetuate harm by failing to provide actual medical expertise, rehabilitation or reduce incarceration. Furthermore, drug use in Portugal remained relatively flat, including among adolescents, at rates lower than other European nations and the United States.

Our experience from the last few decades shows that criminalizing people for drug use does not stop them from using drugs. It is imperative that we stop wasting money and time on a broken system and instead reinvest in what’s most effective — better access to treatment, education and social services, not harsher punishments.

It’s time for a new approach. Any elected official or candidate who is serious about addressing the United States’ overdose crisis should view drug decriminalization as central to their reform agenda.

Queen Adesuyi is a policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Action’s Office of National Affairs in Washington, D.C., where she works to advance DPA’s federal and local District of Columbia legislative agenda. You can follow her work on Twitter @QueenAdesuyi.