Back in 2001 an expert panel recommended that Portugal decriminalise drugs, from cannabis to crack. The government did and went one step further. As British author Johann Hari put it:
“let’s spend all the money we currently spend on arresting drug users, trying drug users, imprisoning drug users, and just put all that money to reconnect drug addicts with society. To give them a purpose in life.”
- Portugal decriminalised the use of all drugs in 2001. Weed, cocaine, heroin, you name it — Portugal decided to treat possession and use of small quantities of these drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one. The drugs were still illegal, of course. But now getting caught with them meant a small fine and maybe a referral to a treatment program — not jail time and a criminal record.
Among Portuguese adults, there are 3 drug overdose deaths for every 1,000,000 citizens. Comparable numbers in other countries range from 10.2 per million in the Netherlands to 44.6 per million in the UK, all the way up to 126.8 per million in Estonia. The EU average is 17.3 per million.
Perhaps more significantly, the report notes that the use of “legal highs” – like so-called “synthetic” marijuana, “bath salts” and the like – is lower in Portugal than in any of the other countries for which reliable data exists. This makes a lot of intuitive sense: why bother with fake weed or dangerous designer drugs when you can get the real stuff? This is arguably a positive development for public health in the sense that many of the designer drugs that people develop to skirt existing drug laws have terrible and often deadly side effects.
According to Policy.Mic it works like this:
If someone is found in the possession of less than a 10-day supply of anything from marijuana to heroin, he or she is sent to a three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, typically made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker. The commission recommends treatment or a minor fine; otherwise, the person is sent off without any penalty. A vast majority of the time, there is no penalty.
Here’s a selection of The success of Portugal’s decriminalisation policy – in seven charts from the British NGO Transform:
The third graph is, I think, the important one.
Social scientists are cautious about a direct causal link between the policy initiative and the measured changes; there may be other factors. Portugal, however, is clearly in a better place with respect to drugs than it was 14 years ago. The predictions of disaster were off the mark.
This graph from from the original Washington Post article shows one country, Romania, doing better than Portugal on drugs:
Other countries do almost as well. Of the major European countries France seems to perform best. The further north you go, the worse it gets. Food for thought!
Countries caught in the ‘war on drugs’ paradigm could take a look.