BY: DANIEL KORN
A couple months ago, I wrote about the war on drugs. After looking at some data, I concluded that treatment programs were both a more cost-effective and long-term tool for curbing drug addiction than police crackdowns and excessive incarceration. To follow up on this, it’s valuable to take a closer look at what happens when this method is put into practice.
On July 1, 2001, the government of Portugal instated a law that decriminalized all drugs—from relatively harmless intoxicants like cannabis to harder stuff like cocaine and heroin. For many people, this is a nightmare scenario—they assumed this would make “drug tourism” run rampant through the country, or that usage rates would increase drastically among the youth. Almost 15 years later, the results are exactly the opposite.
It’s important to first note that the drugs have been “decriminalized” rather than “legalized.” This is a critical distinction—it means that possession, distribution, and use is still illegal. Distribution is tried in a criminal court like it is now, but offences involving the other two are now moved into a special court where, according an article on The Business Insider, “each offender’s unique situation is judged by legal experts, psychologists, and social workers” to determine the proper form of treatment. An anecdote from Johann Hari of Yes! Magazine mentions some of the methods used—providing users with secure housing and subsidized jobs, offering clinics that help users get more in touch with their feelings, and even giving a group of addicts a loan to start a moving company.
As a result, an independent study by the Cato Institute found that a country that once had 1% of its population addicted to drugs has seen a 50 per cent decrease in drug abuse, from 100,000 people in 2001 to just 40,000 people today, who are currently in treatment. Portugal’s drug usage rates have fallen to become one of the lowest in the entire European Union. As an added bonus, drug-related illnesses such as STIs and deaths from overdose have “decreased dramatically.” Other than some political parties on the far right, the country is united in believing the experiment to be a resounding success.
The fact that this method of dealing with habitual drug users has proven to be successful has lead Spain and Italy to follow Portugal’s example. There’s no word on when this sort of policy will be instituted in North America, but one assumes that it will be later rather than sooner, likely to our detriment.