Solution journalism: Drug decriminalization and rehabilitation

Editor’s Note: It’s officially March, so we are marching into solutions. Yes, we’re aware of how lame that pun is! We also think it’s lame that a lot of journalism likes to describe everything that’s wrong with the world without showing data-driven examples of solutions that work! We don’t accept that, so this month we are marching (oof, there it is again) into solutions. We’ll be taking issues/problems from the Nola community and doing the research to find solutions that have proven to work! It’s solution journalism, and we’re looking at drug criminalization! 

How have opiods affected New Orleans? (Photo: Krewe Magazine)

Part 1: The Problem

For quite some time, it has been known that criminalizing drug possession does not deter drug use. In fact, according to the website Human rights watch, “Four decades after US President Richard Nixon declared a ‘war on drugs,’ rates of use have not significantly declined.” Furthermore, according to the paper Poor Prescription: The Costs of Imprisoning Drug Offenders in the United States,” published in the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, “The study also showed that States with higher rates of drug incarceration experience higher, not lower, rates of drug use” (Schiraldi et al. 1). Despite the evidence that drug criminalization does not deter use, all states still make it a criminal offense to possess drugs for personal use.

Another issue with the criminalization of drugs is its effect on racial minority groups. According to Human Rights Watch, “Black adults use drugs at similar or even lower rates than white adults.” Yet, the number of African Americans arrested for drug use, is not the same as the number of white adults arrested for drug use. In fact, “Black adults are more than two-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for drug possession, and nearly four times more likely to be arrested for simple marijuana possession.” Specific regions have even higher numbers of drug arrests for African Americans.

In New York, African Americans are arrested for drug possession at a rate five times higher than white people. In Manhattan, a borough in New York City, African Americans are arrested eleven times more compared to white adults. In Montana and Iowa, the difference between African American and white drug arrests is 6 to 1. According to the ACLU, and Human Rights Watch “This racially disparate enforcement amounts to racial discrimination under international human rights law.” Drug criminalization also has the harshest effects on poor communities, and it reinforces the cycle of poverty. According to the Borgen Project, a Non-Profit focused on reducing extreme poverty, “Impoverished communities face significantly higher rates of addiction. Financial instability fosters stress, increasing the likelihood of addictive behaviors. Heroin addiction illustrates this link. People making less than $20,000 per year are three times more likely to have an addiction to heroin compared to those making $50,000.”

Considering the chances of being arrested for a drug-related crime are significantly higher in impoverished neighborhoods, this can reinforce the cycle of poverty by stifling higher education and employment opportunities. According to The Center For Community Alternatives, “64 percent of the institutions that responded to the survey reported that their applications ask for disclosure of a criminal record. It is more common for private institutions to ask such questions on the application (81%) and four-year colleges were more likely to ask for self-disclosure than two-year colleges (74% compared to 40%)” (Weissman Ph.D et al. 21). Since college graduates are far less likely to suffer from poverty, a criminal drug record can be a serious barrier for youth to escape the cycle of poverty. Outside of college, general employment opportunities remain grim for those with a criminal record. According to the article Sequencing Disadvantage: “A criminal record has a significant negative impact on hiring outcomes, even for applicants with otherwise appealing characteristics. Across teams, a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent” (Pager et al. 199). On a national scale, it seems clear that drug criminalization fails to prevent the abuse of narcotics, and it only serves to promote the continued subjugation of minorities and those in poverty.

Inmates of Orleans Parish Prison during their outside time.

In New Orleans, African Americans make up about 60% of the total population. This makes New Orleans have the fifth-highest number of African Americans among the cities in the United States. Thus, the racialized approach to drug criminalization illustrated earlier becomes even more apparent. According to the VERA Institute of Justice, in their report: Racial Disparity in Marijuana Policing in New Orleans

“The racial disparity remains stubbornly high in [New Orleans] police responses to marijuana-possession offenses. Eighty-five percent of those arrested for marijuana-related offenses (not including distribution) are black, even though black people make up roughly 60 percent of the population. The disparity is even greater among those arrested for felony marijuana possession: 94 percent of arrestees are black” (Ragany et al. 3).

Additionally, the high rate of poverty in New Orleans highlights the negative consequences that drug criminalization has on impoverished neighborhoods. According to the Louisiana Budget Project, “New Orleans had the nation’s highest official poverty rate among the 50 largest metro areas in 2017, according to Census data released Thursday. Incredibly, the city’s 18.6 percent poverty rate actually brings down the average poverty rate for the state. With 19.7 percent of its residents living in poverty, Louisiana is tied once again for the second-highest poverty rate in the country, behind only Mississippi.”

These factors all contribute to Louisiana having the highest incarceration rate in the United States, as well as any country in the world. In fact, according to The Loyola Review, “Drug possession is the most common crime for newly sentenced prisoners, and all of the [ten] most common prison admission categories are for nonviolent offenses. The state’s adoption of the federal War on Drugs was the catalyst behind Louisiana’s exceedingly high incarceration rate and its destructive impact on the state’s minority and indigent populations” (Turkington 567). If New Orleans wants to adequately treat the drug epidemic in  the United States, it must implement a new policy. This policy must be rooted in decriminalization and rehabilitation.

Part 2: Data-Driven Solution

New Orleans, as well as Louisiana, should directly follow Portugal’s lead and decriminalize drugs. Decriminalization will not only reduce the unjust prosecution of minorities and the economically disadvantaged, but it will also open up more doors for the treatment of substance abuse disorders.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs. This approach was one that Portugal instated to prioritize the public health of its citizens. Dr. João Castel-Branco Goulão, who is credited as the “architect” of Portugal’s revolutionary drug policy, stated “We realized we were squandering resources. It made much more sense for us to treat drug addicts as patients who needed help, not as criminals.” Indeed, Portugal’s decriminalization policy is fairly straightforward and rooted in rehabilitation. For drug possession offenses, individuals are referred to the Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction. If this was a first-time offense, the case is deemed to be “low risk,” and it is completely dismissed.

Essentially, the person gets let off with a warning from the commission. For additional offenses, deemed to be a “moderate risk” the individual is offered non-mandatory resources. These resources include drug counseling and treatment options. If an individual is found to be at a “high risk” the commission will provide more complex treatment and non-mandatory treatment options. Dr. João Goulão, elaborated on Portugal’s resources “If you wish to get treatment, we have centers all over the country. They work for free, there’s no payment to be made.” It is worth noting that this treatment is not mandatory, so people can forgo any medical care for their addiction.

For long-term addicts, this can be a huge barrier to their recovery and the success of the decriminalization program. Also, repeat offenders can be subject to a varying degree of fines, which can have more drastic consequences on the poor. However, since 2008, around seventy-five percent of those suffering from an opioid addiction were benefiting from government-sanctioned treatment. Furthermore, between the years 1998 and 2001, there has been a 60% increase in the number of people actively enrolled in Portugal’s drug treatment program.

So, if the lack of mandatory treatment is a problem, it must be an insignificant one. Portugal’s approach is effective, according to Times Magazine “Seventeen years on, the U.S. is suffering its worst addiction epidemic in American history. In 2016 alone, an estimated 64,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses—more than the combined death tolls for Americans in the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq Wars. In Portugal, meanwhile, the drug-induced death rate has plummeted to five times lower than the E.U. average and stands at one-fiftieth of the United States”.

In regards to imprisonment, the decriminalization effort is also showing positive results. According to data compiled by The Transform Drug Policy Foundation, “The move away from criminalizing and imprisoning people who use drugs has led to a dramatic change in the profile of the prison population. In 2001, over 40% of the sentenced Portuguese prison population were held for drug offenses, considerably above the European average, and 70% of reported crime was associated with drugs.13 While the European average has gradually risen over the past twenty years (from 14 to 18%), the proportion of people sentenced for drug offenses in Portuguese prisons has fallen dramatically to 15.7% in 2019 — now below the European average.”

In 2018, there were over 1.6 million arrests for drug related offenses.Drawing from this data it seems clear that Portugal’s drug decriminalization efforts have made a significant impact in terms of addiction resources, as well as the lowering of incarceration rates.

Part 3: Implementation 

Recently, New Orleans has made strides toward a more progressive drug policy in regards to possession of marijuana. According to section 54-506 of the New Orleans Municipal code, “Any violation of section 54-505 occurring on or after September 1, 2021 shall be deemed pardoned immediately upon and by operation of law the issuance of a summons. Relative to Louisaian’s notoriously strict drug laws, this is a bold move and a step in the right direction. However, there is still immense amounts of work that New Orleans must do in terms of drug policy.

For decriminalization rehabilitation to work in New Orleans, the price of treatment must be free or as cheap as possible. Considering the high poverty rate, it is essential that New Orleans builds a robust treatment plan at a reduced cost. At this point the primary issue becomes funding. One solution involves redirecting funds from the police to improve drug treatment facilities. The current Chief of the New Orleans police department is asking for a budget of one hundred and ninety-four million dollars for 2022. Considering there will be no need for arrests, this money can be allocated towards drug treatment and prevention. According to the NOPD website, the average annual salary of a police officer is $56,566, and there are a total of 1,271 active officers in the force. This means that New Orleans spends about $71,895,386 a year just on officer salaries. Additionally, the average salary of a public defender in New Orleans is $69,172, and there are 363 active public defenders in the city. So, New Orleans spends $25,109,436 annually on public defenders. Finally, the state of Louisiana pays $698,000,000 annually on maintaining its prison systems. Assuming drugs are decriminalized, New Orleans will require fewer officers, fewer public defenders, and fewer prisons. The city can redirect that money towards drug rehabilitation.

One of the most pressing difficulties with the decriminalization and rehabilitation strategy is long-term addiction. The best way to reduce the cost of the program is to reduce the number of people who return to the system. Ethically, it is not permissible to restrict a drug user after a certain number of admittances, so it is essential to make sure the treatment program works the first time. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Most people with addictions need at least 90 days of treatment to be successful in recovery.” This means that New Orleans must be able to fund and support a long-term treatment plan. Additionally, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, “In the New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner MSA, 93,000 persons aged 12 or older (10.8 percent) were classified as having a substance use disorder in the past year.” Ideally, New Orleans must have the capability to accommodate all people suffering from substance abuse disorders.

Another factor to consider is the role of harm reduction strategies and institutions. In New Orleans, centers like TRYSTEREO provide supplies for safe drug use and general healthcare. After decriminalization, these institutions will be vital to actively promote the health of New Orleans citizens. Centers like these also boast an incredibly large and experienced volunteer base that can be deployed to help organize and maintain drug treatment facilities. The city should use its funding to bolster the resources of similar institutions, allowing them to expand their network across a vast area of the city.

Works Cited

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Alexander, Lynsey. “Drug Addiction and Its Relationship with Poverty.” The Borgen Project, Lynsey Alexander

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Bajekal, Naina. “Want to Win the War on Drugs? Portugal Might Have the Answer.” Time, Time, 1 Aug. 2018,

Daley, Ken. “Louisiana Has One-Fifth as Many Public Defenders as Needed, Study Says.”, 21 Feb. 2017, d.html.

“Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Setting the Record Straight.” Transform, ight.

“Drug Rehab: Success Rates and Statistics.” The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab, The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab, 20 Oct. 2021, .

“Every 25 Seconds.” Human Rights Watch, 6 Sept. 2021, use-united-states#.

Frakt, Austin. “Pointers from Portugal on Addiction and the Drug War.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Oct. 2020,

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Initiative, Prison Policy. “States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2021.” Prison Policy Initiative,

Johnson, Eric G. “Understanding Louisiana Drug Possession Laws in 2020: Drug Charges.” Eric G Johnson Law, 28 May 2020, /#:~:text=Louisiana%20is%20known%20for%20strict,a%20criminal%20record%20for% 20life.

Lopez, German. “These Maps Show the War on Drugs Is Mostly Fought in Poor Neighborhoods.” Vox, Vox, 16 Apr. 2015,

Meghan Ragany, Rose Wilson, and Jon Wool. Racial Disparity in Marijuana Policing in New Orleans. New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2016

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