Friday, April 3, 2009

Portugal Proves that Decriminalization Does Not Increase Drug Problems

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drug use. Much like in the U.S., the naysayers claimed that decriminalization would lead to increased drug use and drug tourism. Glenn Greenwald went to Portugal to find out if the dire predictions were true. They weren't.

Portugal in the 1990s was experiencing an increase in drug abuse and related problems. A commission was convened to decide what to do about it. Drug legalization was taken off the table because international treaties force countries to keep drugs illegal. Barring legalization, the commission was tasked with looking at the evidence and making a rational decision. The commission decided that the best way to get the drug problem under control was decriminalization.

They had identified two obstacles that decriminalization would help them to overcome. The first was that criminalization made people hesitant to go to the state for help with their drug problem. Fear of jail, a criminal record, or simple stigma kept people away. By removing those obstacles, they reasoned, people would be more willing to get help.

Additionally, they were pouring money into the criminal justice system to prosecute drug users. Portugal, as one of the poorest European countries, didn't have money to waste. Decriminalization freed up resources to be used for treatment and education instead of for the criminal justice system.

As Greenwald pointed out in his conference at the Cato Institute on Friday, supporters of prohibition use scare tactics to justify their position. They will grudgingly acknowledge that our efforts have not resulted in less drug abuse or related problems, but they always claim that legalization or decriminalization would make matters worse. For Greenwald, the central question is "is this assumption accurate."

All the evidence from Portugal shows that it is not. According to his report Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies, drug use in the 13 - 15 year old and 16 - 18 year old groups has decreased for most drugs. Newly reported HIV and AIDS cases related to drug use have declined. Drug related deaths have declined. In fact, "in virtually every category of any significance, Portugal, since decriminalization, has outperformed the vast majority of other states that continue to adhere to a criminalization regime."

Greenwald sent a draft of his report to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy asking why, given higher drug use here than in Portugal, we continue to pursue criminalization. They didn't respond.

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