A Massachusetts prosecutor says that a trip to study Portugal’s drug decriminalization model motivated her to voice support for a U.S. congressional bill that would allow states to set their own marijuana policies.
Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington was one of 20 prosecutors to tour the nation, which decriminalized drug possession in 2001 and has since seen dramatic reductions in overdose deaths and increased access to substance abuse treatment. They met with policymakers, law enforcement and public health professionals to discuss the impacts of decriminalization.
“The eye-opening journey affirmed my view that drug use should be treated as a public health concern,” Harrington said in a press release on Monday. She added that she felt inspired to support the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, now pending in Congress.
She described the group as being “part of a new breed of American prosecutors that are reforming the criminal justice system,” and that includes prosecutors who are proactively changing cannabis enforcement policies by declining to go after low-level possession cases, for example.
“The effort is part of a larger movement in which states across the U.S. are abandoning the aggressive marijuana enforcement policies from the past in favor of sensible approaches that promote public safety and better reflect public opinion,” Harrington said.
In the absence of Justice Department guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities, the district attorney said Congress should pass the STATES Act to prevent interference in state-legal cannabis activities.
The Schedule I status of marijuana under federal law has inhibited research into its therapeutic potential, she argued. And punitive drug laws have fueled mass incarceration, wasting law enforcement resources and disproportionately impacting communities of color.
Money spent prosecuting people for low-level marijuana possession “would be better spent on apprehending violent criminals and removing deadly drugs like fentanyl off the street,” she wrote.
“The STATES Act is a tremendous opportunity for our national leaders to work together and serve the people,” Harrington continued. “We hope they join [bill sponsor Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)] in seizing this landmark opportunity.”
Though the Portugal tour involved an examination of the country’s broader decriminalization policy, Harrington’s statement largely focused on cannabis reform, with no mention of plans to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties for possession of other controlled substances.
That said, decriminalization does seem to be gaining traction elsewhere outside of the U.S. A Canadian lawmaker introduced legislation to decriminalize all illicit drugs last month following a report from a key House of Commons committee recommending the policy change.
Also last month, a top Malaysian official announced that the government would be moving ahead with decriminalization in an effort to combat addiction.