Democratic candidates for President Beto O’Rourke spoke out in favor of decriminalizing opioids in order to combat the country’s drug epidemic on Tuesday, marking the first time the issue of removing criminal penalties for possession of illicit substances beyond marijuana has been seriously discussed on a presidential debate stage.
During the 2020 primary debate in Westerville, Ohio, entrepreneur Andrew Yang was asked about his previously expressed support for decriminalizing opioids such as heroin.
“We need to decriminalize opioids for personal use. We need to let this country know this is not a personal failing, this was a systemic government failing,” he said. “Then we need to open up safe consumption and safe injection sites around the country because they save lives.”
He also said that “we have to recognize [addiction] is a disease of capitalism run amok.”
“There was a point where there were more opioid prescriptions in the state of Ohio than human beings in the state of Ohio, and for some reason the federal government thought that was appropriate,” Yang said, noting that Ohio sued OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma for its role in the crisis.
The suit called on the company to pay a “two percent fine [compared to their profits] and they killed tens of millions of Americans—eight an hour,” the candidate said.
“If the government turned a blind eye to this company, spreading a plague among its people, then the least we can do is put a resource into work in our communities so that people have a fighting chance to get well, even though this is not a money problem. We all know this is a human problem. Part of helping people get the treatment that they need is to let them know that they’re not going to be referred to a prison cell, they will be referred to treatment and counseling.”
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) was also asked to weigh in on whether decriminalization is a part of the solution to addiction and overdose issues.
“Yes it is,” O’Rourke said. “For many of the reasons that Mr. Yang just described.”
The former congressman cited stories he’s heard from voters during his campaign, saying that the experiences of veterans who purchased heroin after being prescribed opioids by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) highlighted the need for drug policy reform.
“Now imagine if that veteran, instead of being prescribed an opioid, had been prescribed marijuana because we made that legal in America, ensured the VA could prescribe it, expunge the arrest records for those who’d been arrested for possession and made sure that he was not prescribed something to which he would become addicted,” O’Rourke said.
His comments about cannabis earned praise from Yang, who could be heard saying, “Yes, preach Beto” while the O’Rourke made his case.