The dire warnings about the effects of pot legalization failed to pan out. But that has not stopped drug warriors from arguing that a soft on drugs approach would be disastrous. Consider this recent article in the OC Register:

So in 2014, with the best of intentions, voters passed Proposition 47. This reduced a great many drug-related offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, and kept a great many low-level drug offenders out of jail. The money saved on incarceration would go into effective addiction treatment, among other things, reformers said.

Since then, there has been an interesting, and perhaps tragic, convergence of events:

Drug offense arrests have plunged 85% — from 137,054 in 2014 to 20,574 in 2022, according to data from the California Department of Justice.
While drug overdose deaths have more than doubled — from 4,519 in 2014 to 10,410 in 2022, according to data from the California Department of Public Health.

Sounds bad!  But what happened in other states?

In 2014, California had only 9.6% of all drug overdose deaths in the US, despite having 12% of the US population.  (Are you surprised, given what you see reported in the media?)  In 2022, that figure actually fell slightly—to 9.5%.  So there’s no evidence that California’s drug crime liberalization had any impact on overdose deaths.  (National data is from here and here.)

Portugal’s drug decriminalization program (which was adopted in 2001), is another example often cited as a failure.  So how is Portugal doing 20 years later?

Drug overdose deaths per million in Portugal are relatively low by Western European standards, and are less than half the rate of neighboring Spain.  In fairness, things have gotten worse in the last three years, as spending on treatment programs was cut back.  So Portugal is far from perfect. But it’s certainly not an example of a failed program:

In 1999, Lisbon carried the moniker of the “heroin capital of Europe.” Consequential diseases such as HIV infection reached an all-time high in 2000, with 104.2 new cases per million people. . . .

By 2018, Portugal’s number of heroin addicts had dropped from 100,000 to 25,000. Portugal had the lowest drug-related death rate in Western Europe, one-tenth of Britain and one-fiftieth of the U.S. HIV infections from drug use injection had declined 90%. The cost per citizen of the program amounted to less than $10/citizen/year while the U.S. had spent over $1 trillion over the same amount of time. Over the first decade, total societal cost savings (e.g., health costs, legal costs, lost individual income) came to 12% and then to 18%.

Oregon is another often cited example of drug decriminalization that failed.  But there’s not much evidence that drug overdose trends there are any worse than they would have been without decriminalization:

The decriminalization of low-level drug possession in Oregon was not associated with a statistically significant increase in drug-related deaths during the first year after that policy took effect, according to a study reported today in JAMA Psychiatry. The researchers reached a similar conclusion regarding fatal overdoses in Washington, where simple possession was decriminalized as a result of a February 2021 decision by the Washington Supreme Court.

Keep in mind that even if state level drug decriminalization had no effect on aggregate drug deaths in America, you would still expect studies to show an increase in drug deaths in the individual state that decriminalized.  That’s because the decriminalization of drugs in a single state will draw drug users from other states.  But those external effects are typically not picked up in empirical studies. This means that national drug decriminalization is likely to look even more effective than decriminalization in a single state.

And finally, most of the benefits from the full legalization of drugs do not occur with decriminalization.  The illegal and often violent drug trade continues to operate.  Overdose deaths due to poor quality drugs continue to occur.   If there are public policy weaknesses in other areas, such as maintaining public order, those problems may get worse if drug users migrate to your state from elsewhere:

Three years ago, Oregon voters approved a groundbreaking ballot initiative that eliminated criminal penalties for low-level drug possession. The result of that “reckless experiment,” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens claims, has been a “catastrophe” featuring increases in “opioid overdose deaths,” “shooting incidents,” and public nuisances such as discarded needles, “human feces,” and “oral sex.”

Stephens’ assessment, which draws heavily on a story by Times reporter Jan Hoffman that was published on Monday, combines legitimate concerns about drug addiction and public order with misleading implications based on out-of-context statistics.