A few months ago, arguments were offered in congressional hearings for fighting the drug-abuse epidemic by making illegal drugs, such as cocaine, legal. Fortunately, the proposals met with little sympathy.
Proponents of decriminalizing drugs point to Prohibition as an example of the futility of outlawing an addictive substance. They say the resulting high cost only encourages the involvement of criminals and also forces users to turn to crime to support the expensive drug habit.Opponents say that trying to control drug abuse by making drugs freely available is madness. They also say that legalizing drugs tells young people that drug use is acceptable when clearly it is not.
In the midst of this debate, the experience of Oregon is instructive.
Sixteen years ago, Oregon became the first state in the nation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. At worst, being caught with less than an ounce would result in a fine, something like the penalty for a traffic ticket. A subtle message of "tolerance" was sent.
What has happened in those 16 years? Oregon has become the third ranking state in illegal marijuana production and has one of the highest violent crime rates in the country.
Lawmakers no longer feel so tolerant and want to send a different message. The Oregon House of Representatives this week passed laws to recriminalize marijuana possession with penalties of up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Those who favor legalizing drugs should take a careful look at the Oregon experience.