Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) unveiled a plan on Thursday that promotes a series of harm reduction policies, including decriminalizing drug possession, to tackle...

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) unveiled a plan on Thursday that promotes a series of harm reduction policies, including decriminalizing drug possession, to tackle addiction and prevent overdoses. He also discussed aspects of the proposal with reform advocates at an event in Iowa.

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said that in order to address a rise in misuse of opioids, as well as other illicit drugs like benzodiazepines and methamphetamine, the country must move away from the criminalization model and embrace policies that treat addiction as a public health issue.

That means removing criminal penalties for drug possession and implementing harm reduction programs, he said.

Here are two of the main harm reduction proposals in the new plan: 

“Creating needle exchanges and supervised consumption sites where people can consume drugs they have obtained elsewhere in a controlled setting, under the supervision of trained staff, and with access to sterile injecting equipment.”

“Implementing innovative models for health care and interventions related to substance use disorder such as that used in Portugal, particularly mobile vans that travel to areas of high consumption to distribute medicines or needle exchanges, where individuals caught with drugs are sent to treatment instead of jail.”

Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2001, a policy widely viewed as a success that has had public health benefits.

Now, the concept is gaining popularity, with 55 percent of Americans in favor of decriminalization, according to a Gallup poll released earlier this month.

Another part of O’Rourke’s solution would involve reform at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Doctors at the VA should be allowed to “prescribe medicinal cannabis and non-opiates as a pain treatment medication alternative,” he said. The department should create “interdisciplinary pain management teams” at their facilities and also support “the compassionate use of medicinal cannabis as an effective remedy for many conditions.”

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, another Democratic presidential candidate, told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that he also supports allowing VA doctors to prescribe cannabis to veterans.

“Beto will treat substance use disorder and opioid use disorder as the public health concerns they are,” his new plan states. “These are not criminal justice issues that warrant punishment. Beto understands that these are chronic brain diseases with the potential for both recovery and relapse.”

During an event at the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition office on Thursday, the candidate said he’d “decriminalize the possession and use of drugs in this country,” describing it as “fundamental, that we no longer pursue this as criminal justice problem.”

While most Democratic presidential candidates have embraced legalizing cannabis, both as a public health and criminal justice matter, broader drug decriminalization and harm reduction policies haven’t gotten as much attention.

Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) also support broad decriminalization, while entrepreneur Andrew Yang has floated decriminalizing opioids. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are in favor of creating safe injection sites, but Sanders has said he’s “not there yet” on outright decriminalization.

O’Rourke and Yang discussed opioid decriminalization during a Democratic debate last week, but now the former congressman has explicitly called for removing criminal penalties for possession of all drugs.

Two U.S. cities—Denver and Oakland—enacted decriminalization policies with respect to psychedelics this year. And activists are working to build on those success through local and state reform efforts, including a campaign to get psilocybin mushrooms decriminalized statewide in California next year.

Interest in decriminalization isn’t limited to the U.S., however.

A UK House of Commons committee issued a report this week calling on the government to remove criminal penalties for drug possession. Scotland’s ruling party unanimously endorsed a resolution calling for drug decriminalization earlier this month, a Canadian House of Commons committee approved a report in June urging the government to lift criminal penalties for low-level possession and a top Mexican lawmaker said last week that the country should go even further by legalizing and regulating all drugs in order to combat cartel violence.

Asked about safe injection facilities, O’Rourke said on Thursday that people “who use drugs are human beings and deserve to be treated with respect.”

He also said he’d be willing to shift funding away from the Drug Enforcement Administration, stating that the “focus on the war on drugs going on 50 years in this country not only has deprived other federal agencies and departments… it’s also militarized our communities.”

O’Rourke released a separate plan last month that also called for marijuana legalization, in addition to expunging prior records and using tax revenue from cannabis sales to directly compensate individuals who have previously served time behind bars for marijuana offenses.

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Photo courtesy of Facebook/Circa.

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