As the USA finally seems to be taking a look at its drug and incarceration policies, the experience of Portugal over the last decade is instructive. In 2001 the Iberian country took the step of removing all criminal penalties from possession of drugs of any sort. Small, administrative penalties remained.
American drug warriors propagandize that only strong drug laws and robust enforcement, prosecution and incarceration control drug use behavior. As it turns out, all such un-American coercion has virtually no effect on drug use.
The drug war does not work. America had few drug problems, other than alcohol and tobacco, prior to the criminalization of drugs. A 2008 study of world-wide drug use and drug control policies confirms; strong, even cruel drug enforcement, like that in the USA, does not reduce drug use.
- USA has, by far, the world’s highest rate of incarceration.
- The USA also operates the strictest and most enforced drug laws.
- The country is also home to the most drug users and the highest rates of illegal drug use.
Portugal’s experience over the first decade of the 21st century is particularly impressive. The CATO Institute’s Glenn Greenwald authored the report, Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies is available online in pdf form. The report documents actual decrease of drug use in moste parameters. Nowhere did drug use or any sort of related problems spike. From the report: (emphases mine)
- None of the nightmare scenarios touted by preenactment decriminalization opponents – from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for “drug tourists”-has occurred.
- The true effects of Portuguese decriminalization can be understood only by comparing postdecriminalization usage and trends in Portugal with other EU states, as well as with non-EU states (such as the United States, Canada, and Australia) that continue to criminalize drugs even for personal usage. And 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.
- Although postdecriminalization usage rates have remained roughly the same or even decreased slightly when compared with other EU states, drug-related pathologies-such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage-have decreased dramatically.
Virtually all the news coming out of Portugal’s policy of decriminalization then, was positive. Especially important was the decrease in drug use by 15-19 year old Portuguese youth.
As Senator Jim Webb and other senators from both parties undertake the the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, we hope they will study the positive results of decriminalization in Portugal. The clearly positive results for Portugal in decriminalizing drugs should be a key piece of evidence for Senator Webb and others on the new commission. Hopefully, the commission will be guided by the the overwhelming verdict:
- Possession of all drugs could be and should be removed from the American criminal justice system.
Drug use in the USA would decrease, as it has in Portugal. all health and societal problems associated with drugs would diminish. The vast network of harm maximization of the drug war could be dismantled. This is a difficult goal in a country that has for 40 years been consumed in a War on Drugs, no matter how badly this war has failed.
An early goal in this process, one with the most harm minimization effect the quickest should be:
- Decriminalize cannabis in the USA.
- As a first step, the plant and its cannabinoids should be moved from Schedule I to Schedule V.
American citizens would be spared the expense, waste, handicap and indignity of over 800,000 cannabis arrests each year. To the extent this is a goal for many policy makers, cannabis use would likely decrease, along with a vast waste of money and squandering of human lives.
If the USA is to set policy by facts and science, rather than by politics and bureaucracy, we will be guided by how wonderfully decriminalization of drugs has worked out in Portugal.