Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work?
Pop quiz: Which European country has the most liberal drug laws? (Hint: It's not the Netherlands.)
Holland has never actually legalized cannabis — the Dutch simply don't enforce their laws against the shops. The correct answer is Portugal, which in 2001 became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
At the recommendation of a national commission charged with addressing Portugal's drug problem, jail time was replaced with the offer of therapy. The argument was that the fear of prison drives addicts underground and that incarceration is more expensive than treatment — so why not give drug addicts health services instead? Under Portugal's new regime, people found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser for appropriate treatment (which may be refused without criminal punishment), instead of jail.
The question is, does the new policy work? At the time, critics in the poor, socially conservative and largely Catholic nation said decriminalizing drug possession would open the country to "drug tourists" and exacerbate Portugal's drug problem; the country had some of the highest levels of hard-drug use in Europe. But the recently released results of a report commissioned by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, suggest otherwise.
The paper, published by Cato in April, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.
"Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success," says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. "It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does."
Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal's drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.
Portugal's case study is of some interest to lawmakers in the U.S., confronted now with the violent overflow of escalating drug gang wars in Mexico. The U.S. has long championed a hard-line drug policy, supporting only international agreements that enforce drug prohibition and imposing on its citizens some of the world's harshest penalties for drug possession and sales. Yet America has the highest rates of cocaine and marijuana use in the world, and while most of the E.U. (including Holland) has more liberal drug laws than the U.S., it also has less drug use.
"I think we can learn that we should stop being reflexively opposed when someone else does [decriminalize] and should take seriously the possibility that anti-user enforcement isn't having much influence on our drug consumption," says Mark Kleiman, director of the drug policy analysis program at UCLA. Kleiman does not consider Portugal a realistic model for the U.S., however, because of differences in size and culture between the two countries.