Thursday, June 23, 2011

Portugal's Drug Decriminalization: 10 Years Later

We spend so much time arguing about whether a society where drugs were legal would be one of peaceful joy or hedonistic anarchy. Everybody has an opinion, but the facts are often ignored. Very few people know that ten years ago, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. Now that a decade has passed, the results can be analyzed-- and they're very promising.


Decriminalization is different from legalization-- those caught with more than ten days' personal worth of drugs still have to face penalties. However, these penalties are administrative rather than criminal. This was a choice made by the Portugese government as a result of their drug problem: instead of incarcerating casual users, they gave them the option to seek help for addictions. This makes it a healthcare issue, rather than a criminal one, and eliminates the stigma. The accused are brought before a discussion board that consists of a legal official, a counselor, and a healthcare official. The board will recommend either treatment, a fine, a warning, or no penalty. Other penalties include the revocation of career licenses, a ban on visiting high-risk areas like nightclubs, or a restriction on international travel. Dealers and traffickers still get the same penalties as they did before the law was passed.


Overall, drug use in Portugal has increased slightly among most age groups, but drug-related problems have decreased sharply. The number of deaths from overdoses has dropped from an average of 400 to an average of 290, and HIV cases from dirty needles plummeted from 1,400 to just 400. Probably most encouragingly, the numbers of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled. In fact, more Americans have used cocaine than Portugese have used cannabis: only 10% of Portugal's population uses it over the course of their lives (and I guess that's some sort of good thing). There have been some moves to improve the policy's efficiency through bureaucratic changes, but very few people are trying to repeal it. Much of the rest of the EU is looking to follow in Portugal's footsteps. It looks like good news to me! 


Many international treaties make a ban on drugs an obligation, so decriminalization is the most realistic option and seems to have worked really well. America's legalization proponents should look into this as a compromise. It keeps everybody happy: politicians get to feel effective, users don't get hunted like witches and burned at the stake, and those who really need help with their drug use can get the help they need without fear of incarceration.

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