fentanyl definition

Decriminalizing Fentanyl

Decriminalization is a hot topic right now. We’ve all pretty much agreed that the War on Drugs didn’t work, and harsh penalties for drug possession have devastated low-income and minority communities while doing little to curb substance abuse.

Marijuana has been decriminalized or legalized in many states in the US, allowing it be distributed for recreational and/or medicinal purposes.

That’s marijuana, but what about other drugs? Believe it or not, some cities, states, and countries have decriminalized illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine, and even fentanyl. The verdict is still out, however, on whether this bold move has been a success.

Decriminalization Is Not Legalization

You’re probably wondering, Why is fentanyl legal in some places? For starters, let’s talk about the difference between decriminalizing and legalizing.

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The ACLU of Washington provides a helpful distinction: When a drug is legalized, it is permittable by law to use it. This usually means that it is possible to obtain the drug legally, like at a cannabis dispensary. While there can still be limits on usage, it is possible to use and sell the drug without being convicted or fined.

Decriminalization, on the other hand, simply removes criminal sanctions against certain activities, like possession of a drug for personal use. The drug is still technically illegal, but repercussions for possession are no longer criminal. Production and sale of decriminalized drugs is still illegal and subject to criminal prosecution.

In the case of illicit fentanyl, decriminalization is the only option being explored.

Why Is Fentanyl Decriminalized?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, and illegally-made fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths. Fentanyl is added to other illicit drugs because it is cheaper and stronger, and most users are unaware that their drugs are laced with it, making fentanyl overdose rates higher than most other drugs.

So why decriminalize it?

The strongest argument for decriminalization of drugs is that criminal punishments for drug use have not decreased substance abuse or overdoses. World Psychiatry notes that in 2016, the United Nations recognized drug abuse as a treatable health disorder, recommending a shift from a criminal approach to a public health approach. They asserted that criminal sanctions are ineffective at preventing or addressing substance use disorders, while evidence-based treatment, harm reduction, and social supports are proven to be effective.

Criminal punishments for drug use have not decreased substance abuse or overdoses.

Peter Grinspoon, a doctor who was once addicted to opioids, argues in TIME that decriminalizing opioids would save many lives. He believes that criminalization enhances risks and prevents access to treatment, and that healthcare providers, not law enforcement, should be on the frontlines of the opioid crisis. Decriminalization also allows for regulated drug supplies and makes people more likely to be open with doctors and loved ones about their substance abuse.

Harm Reduction vs. Public Safety

Consideration of decriminalization and harm reduction tactics for drug use must include assessing the potential impacts they will have on the community as a whole, not just drug users.

In 2020, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of fentanyl and other illicit drugs. With the passage of Measure 110, the legal consequences of fentanyl possession were limited to a $100 fine and a number to call for drug treatment assessment.

But there’s one major catch. The goal of decriminalization is to send people to treatment rather than jail, and this requires available treatment options, of which Oregon, and the rest of the US, doesn’t have nearly enough. Funding for treatment has lagged, and even people who want to enter treatment often find themselves waiting for weeks or months for availability.

Where does that leave drug users? On the streets.

In an interview with PBS, Portland Commissioner Mingus Mapps blames rising homicides, homelessness, and a struggling downtown on the stranglehold fentanyl has on his city. He does admit, however, that Measure 110 came right before the pandemic and right as fentanyl hit the streets, so it’s hard to know whether decriminalization is to blame.

What’s not up for debate is that Portland is a different city than it was three years ago, and fentanyl is at the heart of the changes. This leaves many asking whether fentanyl should be among the drugs we seek to decriminalize.

What’s the Solution?

If there were an easy solution for this global crisis, it wouldn’t be a crisis. But one thing is certain: Evidence-based substance abuse treatment works, and it must play an integral role in addressing the continuing opioid crisis.

Evidence-based substance abuse treatment works, and it must play an integral role in addressing the continuing opioid crisis.

Recovery comes in many forms, and at Meadows Behavioral Healthcare, we offer a range of treatment options for substance abuse and co-occurring disorders. The Meadows Outpatient Center offers an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) with daytime and evening treatment options at a wide variety of locations. For those who need the flexibility to continue working and meeting personal and family obligations while receiving treatment, we also have a virtual option. Here, we provide the same level of clinical excellence as our inpatient programs, following the Meadows Model of trauma-informed care that undergirds all our treatment modalities. If you or a loved one is suffering from addiction, reach out today to talk to one of our admission specialists and find out how we can help you start down the road to recovery.


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