Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Portuguese Experiment


How has decriminalization fared in Portugal?

In 2001, amid lurid worldwide media coverage, Portugal made the decision to eliminate penalties for the personal use and possession of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. Dire predictions were heard on all sides. According to the London Economist, this “ultraliberal legislation had set alarm bells ringing across Europe. The Portuguese were said to be fearful that holiday resorts would become dumping-grounds for drug tourists. Some conservative politicians denounced the decriminalization as 'pure lunacy'”.

Strictly speaking, Portugal did not legalize drugs. They decriminalized them—drug use and possession have been deemed administrative, not criminal, matters. Drug trafficking remains a criminal offense. Portugal is the only nation in the European Union (EU) to have made this blanket move, and Portuguese health officials have been at pains to point out that decriminalization in Portugal does not mean that drug use is in any way condoned or encouraged there.

Eight years down the road, how is this "lunatic" project faring? According to the Cato Institute, in a report issued earlier this year, pretty darn well. In “Drug Decriminalisation in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies,” Glenn Greenwald concludes that the project is in fact “a resounding success.” According to the Cato report, “decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal, and that “sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage” have decreased dramatically.

Two years earlier, a study by the British Beckley Foundation, a member of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), reported that the main changes in Portugal since decriminalization in 2001 were:

--Increased use of cannabis.

--Decreased use of heroin.

--Increased use of treatment options.

--Reduction in drug-related deaths.

The Economist, in its article entitled “Treating, Not Punishing,” concludes: “The evidence from Portugal since 2001 is that decriminalisation of drug use and possession has benefits and no harmful side-effects.”

No harmful side effects? How do we square that with the worldwide unending Drug War? I am tempted to suggest that either everybody is lying about the situation in Portugal, or else it is time to put the Drug War to bed. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske has made clear his distaste for the term “drug war,” but has yet to solidly indicate the course that will take the country away from spending money on interdiction and prosecution and toward spending money on treatment, medical research, and harm reduction policies.

Graphics Credit: Cato Institute

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