A socially conservative point of view generally holds that decriminalization of drugs will only lead to drug tourism, greater dependency for addicts, and a gradual social decline. But the Portuguese experiment would not seem to bear out those preconceptions, as revealed in the latest issue of the Economist.
Portugal decriminalized personal use and possession of all drugs in 2001, including such harmful narcotics as heroin and cocaine. Police were ordered not to arrest anyone discovered taking any illicit narcotics. At the time the rest of Europe thought that Portugal had gone insane, deeming it “ultraliberal legislation”. Interestingly, however, if you go into the news archives from that time period, there were a lot of publications in North America praising the move.
The predicted drug tourism and hardcore abuse, however, never came to pass:
Mr.Greenwald claims that the data show that “decriminalisation has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal”, which “in numerous categories are now among the lowest in the European Union”. This came after some rises in the 1990s, before decriminalisation. The figures reveal little evidence of drug tourism: 95% of those cited for drug misdemeanours since 2001 have been Portuguese. The level of drug trafficking, measured by numbers convicted, has also declined. And the incidence of other drug-related problems, including sexually transmitted diseases and deaths from drug overdoses, has “decreased dramatically”.
There are widespread misconceptions about the Portuguese approach. “It is important not to confuse decriminalisation with depenalisation or legalisation,” comments Brendan Hughes of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which is, coincidentally, based in Lisbon. “Drug use remains illegal in Portugal, and anyone in possession will be stopped by the police, have the drugs confiscated and be sent before a commission.”
The key to Portugal’s approach is in offering a balanced hand of treatment and punishment. Narcotics remain illegal, and drug treatment for repeat offenders is mandatory, but the state saves time, money, and anguish by avoiding mere punitive measures. It also encourages people who are genuinely addicted to seek treatment of their own volition, since the government has removed the fear of imprisonment.
The statistics also bear out the success of the programme. Addicts in rehab rose 400% over the past decade, while actual drug use has fallen. Perhaps the most relevant comment is here:
“We no longer have to work under the paradox that exists in many countries of providing support and medical care to people the law considers criminals.”
One can always deny a correlation between the legislation and the benefits, but decriminalization and treatment certainly hasn’t been detrimental to Portugal. Canada may want to look more closely at the kind of laws that have been tried in Europe, and use it in an approach for tackling drug use here, particularly in British Columbia where the failed “war on drugs” is having an ever-increasing toll on the quality of life for all of us.
Further reading: Cato Institute Whitepaper on Portugal and Drug Decriminalization