On election day, voters in Oregon took a decisive and important step to stemming the tide of overdose deaths and other drug-related harms. In a first-of-its kind ballot initiative, 58.5 percent of Oregonians voted to decriminalize personal possession of drugs, and invest heavily in treatment and services to help those struggling with addiction. While this move comes too late to help my son, Jonathan, who died of a heroin overdose in 2003, it will save countless lives going forward.
When we think about the War on Drugs, we too rarely think about the ways in which criminalization contributes to the deaths of people like my son. I certainly understand the impulse to use law enforcement to try and save a loved one. He was arrested many times, and I often couldn’t help thinking he’d be better off locked up. But that’s a choice no parent should have to face.
Because of the drug war, people who struggle with addiction are branded as criminals and saddled with life-long records that make it harder to get a job, housing or even a credit card. But there’s something less tangible that happens when we treat drug use as a criminal problem, rather than a health issue—we stigmatize a whole group of people, treating them with scorn rather than the compassion they deserve.
If Jonathan had received care just a little sooner, he could have been given naloxone in time to save his life.
Jonathan struggled to quit heroin for years. In the end, he overdosed and was dumped outside a hospital because the people with him were too afraid of being arrested to call for help. If he had received care just a little sooner, he could have been given naloxone—a medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose—in time to save his life.
Ironically, naloxone, which has saved tens of thousands of lives, was invented by my late husband, Jack Fishman, in 1961. Tragically, it was still scarcely accessible at the time of my son’s overdose.
The dramatic rise in overdose deaths in recent years is rooted in criminalization, which drives drug use underground and makes it less likely people will access help. Unfortunately, my story isn’t unique. Criminalization kills.
The victory in Oregon gives me so much hope. It’s about getting thousands out of people out of jail and saving lives. It is about re-humanizing people who use drugs and treating people with compassion, offering them a helping hand instead of handcuffs. It is a victory for us all because it rejects the idea that those who use drugs are criminals who must be incarcerated to get help.
Specifically, the initiative makes possession of small amounts of drugs a violation, similar to a traffic ticket, and no longer punishable by jail time. The law also funds drug treatment, harm reduction services, housing and recovery programs using money from legal marijuana taxes and savings from no longer arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating people for drug possession. On election day, Oregonians made a powerful decision to offer support, not punishment, to people who struggle with addiction.
I hope that the historic move to decriminalize drug possession in Oregon is the start of a new era for US drug policy.
Jonathan wasn’t a criminal, nor was he just a person who struggled with heroin. He was a beautiful boy, who grew into a handsome man—a man who tried to give back to his community, who loved others deeply, who did his best to overcome addiction in a society that treated him with judgement and scorn.
I can only imagine how his story might have been different if he had been treated with compassion. That’s what the Oregon initiative seeks to do, and what we should be doing in every state.
I hope that the historic move to decriminalize drug possession in Oregon is the start of a new era for US drug policy—an era where compassion replaces criminalization and where no mother has to face the kind of loss I did. I hope you’ll join those of us working to move from criminalization to compassion.
The author is a member of the board of directors of the Drug Policy Alliance. DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.