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Is California Finally Figuring Out Drugs?

California’s last half-century of deadly, mood-altering drugs has been a roller coaster of barbiturates, heroin, speed, cocaine, methamphetamine, and now pharmaceutical opiates (see Figure). No state has embraced both illegal drugs and the official wars thereon like California, where 125,000 have died from overdoses in the last 50 years and imprisonments for drugs soared 1,200 percent during the 1980s and ‘90s.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014), California Department of Public Health (2014).

The 1960s barbiturate-vodka (“Valley of the Dolls,” “Mother’s Little Helper”), heroin, and speed binges left California (with 10 percent of the nation’s population) suffering 30 percent of the country’s drug deaths. Outside the Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City areas, the sixties' drug crisis barely existed. In response, California pioneered community treatment, suicide prevention, pharmaceutical regulation, and marijuana downgrading regimes. Drug deaths plummeted for the next decade.

Then came the ‘80s with the “War on Drugs” and a new, moralistic mandate in the National Drug Control Strategy: Punish casual drug users (because their benign experience advertised drugs to new users) while neglecting drug abusers (because their troubles deterred new users). This “harm maximization” strategy yielded predictable results.

In 1980, 2,400 Californians were in prison for drug offenses; by 1999, over 45,000. Arrest policies increasingly fixated on low-level marijuana possession. Across the country, drug abuse deaths, which had been declining, exploded in the mid-1980s and beyond. In 1980, 1,400 Californians died from abusing illicit drugs; by 1999, over 3,000.

Then, beginning with Proposition 36 in 2000 and legislated reforms barring prison for low-level drug offenses in favor of community-based alternatives, California rediscovered the lessons of the 1970s and began dismantling its drug war. Realignment of prisoners to local custody and marijuana decriminalization in 2011 also contributed to a new California where drug arrests dropped three times faster, and drug imprisonments fell 11 times faster, than elsewhere in the country during the 2000s.

Even amid a burgeoning nationwide pharmaceutical opiate epidemic, California showed the best trends of any major state. Drug deaths continued to rise, but at a far slower pace than before or in other states. Beginning in 2004, for the first time, the state became safer from deadly drugs than elsewhere. California’s rate of drug deaths is now 20 percent below the national average and actually fell in 2012.

California’s future trends look more promising still, for bad and good reasons. The current drug epidemic is centered in middle-aged populations, which Drug War strategy addressed by letting them die. Also no thanks to national policy, they’re not being replaced by younger abusers. Drug death rates among California’s teenagers have fallen to 40 percent below the national average, as Latinos and Asians with low abuse rates increasingly dominate younger populations.

While demographic changes play a part, California’s move away from mass incarceration and toward local treatment also appears to be contributing to better trends. An upcoming CJCJ report will show that California’s policy reforms, including de facto decriminalization of marijuana for all ages, have been accompanied by favorable trends in key risks among teenagers and stable trends among adults. Hopefully, 1975 is here to stay.

Keywords: California, drug policy, incarceration, Mike Males, substance use

Posted in Blog, Drug Policy

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