Doomsday averted: drug decriminalisation in PortugalApril 21, 2009 at 9:29 pm | Posted in Drugs, International | 3 Comments
For those of us who want to liberalise Britain’s drug laws, a continued source of frustration has been our inability to offer evidence about what the benefits might be. Sure, we can all point out the failure of our war on drugs, we can highlight the lives that have been claimed everywhere from Mexico to Guinea-Bissau, and we can make some rational assumptions about how ending prohibition would reduce the burden on the state, as well as its power to imprison & invade the privacy of individuals.
We can say all of that, but the fact remains that our arguments about the benefits to society have always been untested. The vast majority of developed countries also practice some version of the war against drugs, and so there’s been little data to show what might happen if we changed the law. As a result, the doomsday scenarios of prohibitionists have always had the upper hand, and their habit of wielding ‘common sense’ like a cudgel continues to scare enough people into believing that liberalisation is just too terrifying to be tried.
But this month, something important happened. In the United States, the libertarian Cato Institute issued a paper by the estimable Glenn Greenwald on the effects of decriminalisation in Portugal. Given the prestige of the institution, the repute of the author and the thoroughness of the research, it should be essential reading for people on both sides of the debate.
First, some background. In the late 1990’s Portugal’s drug problem had reached crisis point: drug use had escalated dramatically, and with that the number of drug pathologies, incarceration for drug use and the amount of money the state spent trying to eradicate the problem. Nothing they tried had worked, and so the government of the day effectively outsourced the problem to a committee of policy makers, who were charged with making recommendations about how to reduce the damage. They concluded that no amount of ‘crackdown’ policing or sentencing would effectively reduce drug use, and it certainly wouldn’t do nothing to reduce the harm caused by drugs. There was, they decided, little alternative but decriminalisation.
Naturally, the plan was incredibly divisive, and the prohibitionists offered the same arguments we hear in Britain today; that drug use would rocket; that the country would become a magnet for drug tourism; that crime would overwhelm the country and the economy would suffer.
But as Greenwald’s report demonstrates, none of those terrible predictions ever came to pass. Since they decriminalised drugs in 2001, most of Portugal’s European neighbours have reported net increases in drug use; by contrast, Portugal can boast that its drug problems have been contained. The level of drug use has stabilised, but has actually decreased in several demographics, including the crucial 15-19 age group. From 2001-2005, Portugal had the absolute lowest lifetime prevalence rate for cannabis and the fifth lowest for cocaine. If you’re looking for high rates of drug use, you won’t find it in the country which decriminalised drugs.
Since calling off the hunt against users, the country has also managed to substantially improve health outcomes. Now that undergoing drug treatment doesn’t mean you have to incriminate yourself in criminal activity, greater numbers of addicts are coming forward, and the state has become more able to provide treatment thanks to the reduced burden of prosecuting them. At the same time, drug-related deaths have decreased, infection rates for HIV and hepatitis are down thanks to safe needle exchange, incarceration of users is non-existent and Portugal never became the destination for drug tourism which opponents feared. None of this could have been achieved with criminalisation still in place.
Eight years on from decriminalisation, and a policy which divided the country’s politicians has now become a cross-party consensus. By understanding that no amount of harsh penalties will stabilise its drug problem, Portugal has achieved net decreases in use among important age groups and also improved treatment and health outcomes for addicts. Doomsday well and truly averted.
No, Portugal is not America and nor is it Great Britain, and I’d agree that you can’t simply transplant one country’s policy into another without serious thought. But the Greenwald report offers compelling evidence that the nightmare scenarios offered by its opponents have simply not come to pass, and has provided those of us who see no virtue or utility in the current system with compelling reasons for why change is necessary.
For slightly more detail than the summary offered in this post, the report can be found here; Cato’s summary can be seen here; Greenwald blogs about the report over at Salon; and is interviewed by the folks at libertarian mag Reason.