October 13th, 2016
“Will decriminalization solve the drug scourge?” wonders a Washington Post column today. It’s a question being widely asked in the wake of a major report published yesterday by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, in which those two prestigious organizations called for the decriminalization of all drugs for personal use.
The many reasons to support such a move include the right to self-determination when it comes to drug use; better prospects of reducing drug-related harms; and ending America’s appalling, racially biased levels of drug-related arrests and incarceration.
An irresistible case can be built around such arguments. But we also have some very good practical examples of other countries’ real-life experiences of drug decriminalization to show us the way—and none better than Portugal.
Portugal decriminalized all drugs back in 2001, eliminating criminal penalties for consumption and possession in quantities deemed to be for personal use. This didn’t go as far as total legalization—drug possession is still classed as a civil violation, health interventions may be mandated, and drug dealing remains a criminal offense—but at a stroke, it meant the vast majority of people who use drugs in the country were no longer subject to criminal justice system involvement.
Portugal’s bold approach has been in place for long enough to allow meaningful analysis of its results. Last year, the Drug Policy Alliance put together a useful fact-sheet summarizing what independent researchers have found since its implementation.
The benefits have been dramatic.
First—and perhaps counterintuitively to some—while rates for different drugs and regions vary, there has been no major increase in illicit drug use despite the removal of the threat of prosecution. Rates of drug use in Portugal have remained below the EU average and far below US levels. If the 20th century taught us one thing, it’s that banning drugs does not stop people using them; Portugal’s experience further suggests that lifting the penalties does not spark a rush to obtain drugs.
Self-evidently, Portugal has experienced a major drop in drug-related arrests and incarceration. It’s an outcome that would be highly desirable in the US, the most incarcerated nation on earth, which pays a heavy price in money, racial disparities and human lives for its 2 million-plus behind bars.
The number of people receiving treatment for drug problems in Portugal also rose by 60 percent between 1998 and 2011—with most receiving effective ORT drugs like methadone or buprenorphine—despite there being no corresponding rise in overall drug use. This makes sense: When people who use drugs face the threat of arrest and prosecution, they have a clear disincentive to seek help if they need it.
And for similar reasons, Portugal has benefited from a steep reduction in new HIV cases: In 2000, the number of new cases among people who use drugs was 1,575—by 2013, that figure was only 78. When you remove the threat of law enforcement and allow people who use drugs to openly seek supplies to keep themselves safer, such as sterile syringes, that’s what tends to happen.
The list goes on, but let’s end with one more statistic that should really make the US prick up its ears: In 2001, 80 people in Portugal reportedly died due to drug overdose—in 2012, that number was just 16. It’s another illustration—and here’s a graph showing just how low Portugal ranks for overdose deaths—of the benefits of a public health-centered approach in terms of inclusion, education and reducing harm.
It’s easy to answer the question of whether or not the US should decriminalize drugs. Indeed, the only debate should be around whether decriminalization goes far enough—whether full legal regulation, providing much-needed accountability around drug production and ending the persecution of dealers, would not be a better destination.
But regulatory models are complex and debatable; straight-up decriminalization, if the political will existed, could happen pretty much now.