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Decriminalizing Drugs

By: Sia Minhas, Contributing Writer

What Does Decriminalizing Drugs Mean?

As defined by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Decriminalization is the removal of criminal penalties for drug law violations.” Decriminalization has been associated with drugs ranging from marijuana to cocaine. These drugs contrast in extremity but the essence of decriminalization has remained the same. Removing the illegality of these drugs and minimizing the negative connotations that substance users are felons/criminals/too far flawed members of society helps them safely use drugs and find support within their community and through other spaces like rehabilitation sites; a subjectively better option to being in jail. However, this doesn’t mean that all drugs in all quantities will be legalized. Instead, it is usually drugs that are in a small quantity and intended for personal use that are targeted for decriminalization. There is still so much to be understood of decriminalization and how we can work towards helping those who use narcotics but decriminalization has already been implemented in many places and the effects are evident.

Effects of Decriminalization

There are many benefits to decriminalizing narcotics and the effects are quite apparent in places where decriminalization has already happened. For example, in July of 2001, Portugal decriminalized drugs and since then there have been many benefits to the decision to do so. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, some benefits of this decision passing include the fact that drug violations have been reduced immensely. This is an extremely good step to long-lasting progress. Incarceration doesn’t create a solution to the drug epidemic. However, with the fear of incarceration out of the way, stigma is also reduced. People are not as fearful to reach out for help from professionals in emergency situations. Drug overdose fatalities decreased from 80 to 16 from 2001 to 2012 because of this. It is clear that decriminalization has benefitted Portugal in many ways. However, what does this mean for other countries? Will the results be the same? The benefit most applicable to this topic is that decriminalizing drugs prioritizes the wellbeing of drug users over punishment. Punishing drug users does not solve problems related to drug use. It only maintains the stigma that hinders the ability of drug users to come out and seek help for these issues.

Correlation Between Substance Abuse and Mental Health

There is a real term designated for people who have both a substance abuse problem and a mental health issue. It is called a dual-diagnosis. There is a clear correlation with dual-diagnoses. According to HelpGuide, “Roughly 50 percent of individuals with severe mental disorders are affected by substance abuse.” Many people use alcohol and drugs to self-medicate or cope with symptoms of mental health problems. This can actually amplify previously existing mental illnesses. It is important to seek help if you or someone you know is presenting symptoms of a dual-diagnosis. Some symptoms of depression include loss of interest in daily activities, guilt, hopelessness, sadness, excess sleepiness, fatigue, lack of concentration, and more; If you are physically dependent on any substance and regularly use a substance, seek help from a trusted adult/medical professional. Treatment for dual-diagnosis is usually a combined approach that may involve counseling, lifestyle changes, and medication for mental health problems and behavioral therapy, detoxification, and support groups for substance abuse problems. Recognizing the signs and seeking help are the first few steps down the road to recovery and treatment.


People who deal with substance abuse are not bad people. They are not criminals, lowlifes, or wasted members of society. They are human beings in need of support from their community. It is important that we live in a society where substance abuse isn’t associated with such negative terms and create a world where people aren’t afraid of seeking help. Change begins with us. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse/mental health problems, call 1-800-662-4357 to access the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administrations’ helpline.

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