We must decriminalize drug use and possession ASAP

August 26, 2015

The verdict is in. Portugal decriminalized* drug use and possession in 2001, including heroin and cocaine. Fourteen years later, heroin addiction rates have been cut in half and the number of drug-related deaths has been cut by 75%. The fear that decriminalization would cause an increase in so-called drug tourism never materialized.

In his white paper** analyzing the effects of decriminalization in Portugal, Glenn Greeenwald concludes,

None of the fears promulgated by opponents of Portuguese decriminalization has come to fruition, whereas many of the benefits predicted by drug policymakers from instituting a decriminalization regime have been realized. While drug addiction, usage, and associated pathologies continue to skyrocket in many EU states, those problems—in virtually every relevant category—have been either contained or measurably improved within Portugal since 2001. In certain key demographic segments, drug usage has decreased in absolute terms in the decriminalization framework, even as usage across the EU continues to increase, including in those states that continue to take the hardest line in criminalizing drug possession and usage.

By freeing its citizens from the fear of prosecution and imprisonment for drug usage, Portugal has dramatically improved its ability to encourage drug addicts to avail themselves of treatment. The resources that were previously devoted to prosecuting and imprisoning drug addicts are now available to provide treatment programs to addicts. Those developments, along with Portugal’s shift to a harm-reduction approach, have dramatically improved drug-related social ills, including drug-caused mortalities and drug-related disease transmission. Ideally, treatment programs would be strictly voluntary, but Portugal’s program is certainly preferable to criminalization.
The Portuguese have seen the benefits of decriminalization, and therefore there is no serious political push in Portugal to return to a criminalization framework. Drug policy-makers in the Portuguese government are virtually unanimous in their belief that decriminalization has enabled a far more effective approach to managing Portugal’s addiction problems and other drug-related afflictions. Since the available data demonstrate that they are right, the Portuguese model ought to be carefully considered by policymakers around the world.
Criminal justice reform is one of the most important and pressing issues of the day. We are the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in our nation’s prisons or jails — a 500% increase over the past thirty years. In October 2013, our nation’s incarceration rate was the highest in the world, at 716 per 100,000 of the national population. We have imprisoned 25% of the world’s prisoners even though our population is only 5% of the world’s population. More than half of the people incarcerated in federal prisons were sentenced to prison for drug offenses. A June 2015 ACLU poll of citizens likely to vote in 2016, found that 7 in 10 people favor criminal justice reform.
Meaningful criminal justice reform cannot happen in this country unless we decriminalize drugs. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate for President who supports decriminalization. Unfortunately, however, he only supports decriminalization of marijuana.
We do not have to reinvent the wheel. Portugal’s 14-year successful experience decriminalizing drug possession and use, including heroin and cocaine, provides us with a comprehensive master plan to follow. No legitimate reason exists to not implement this plan as soon as possible.
The first step, of course, should be to declare amnesty and restore full civil rights to everyone convicted of a non-violent drug offense and to release everyone who is incarcerated for a non-violent drug offense.
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*Decriminalization in Portugal does not mean legalization. Decriminalization means drug possession for personal use and drug usage are still prohibited, but violations are deemed to be non-criminal administrative violations similar to parking tickets. Drug trafficking continues to be prosecuted as a criminal offense.
**Greenwald, G., Drug Decriminalization in Portugal, Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies (Cato Institute July 2015)

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