Portugal Decriminalized Drugs

portugalWhat Can the U.S. Learn?

The New Yorker

A REPORTER AT LARGE about the decriminalization of drug use. By the nineteen-eighties, drug abuse had become a serious problem in Portugal.

The Lisbon government responded in the usual way—increasing sentences for convictions and spending more money on investigations and prosecutions. Matters only grew worse.

In 1999, nearly one per cent of the population—a hundred thousand people—were heroin addicts, and Portugal reported the highest rate of drug-related AIDS deaths in the European Union.

In 2001, Portuguese leaders, flailing about and desperate for change, took an unlikely gamble: they passed a law that made Portugal the first country to fully decriminalize personal drug use.

(Other nations, such as Italy and the Netherlands, rarely prosecute minor drug offenses, but none have laws that so explicitly declare drugs to be “decriminalized.”)

“We were out of options,” said João Goulão, the president of the Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction, a department of the Ministry of Health that oversees Portuguese drug laws and policy.

For people caught with no more than a ten-day supply of marijuana, heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, or crystal methamphetamine—anything, really—there would be no arrests, no prosecutions, no prison sentences.

Dealers are still sent to prison, or fined, or both, but, for the past decade,

Portugal has treated drug abuse solely as a public-health issue. That doesn’t mean drugs are legal in Portugal. When caught, people are summoned before an administrative body called the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction.

Each panel consists of three members—usually a lawyer or a judge, a doctor, and a psychologist or a social worker.

The commissioners have three options: recommend treatment, levy a small fine, or do nothing. In most respects, the law seems to have worked: serious drug use is down significantly,

particularly among young people; the burden on the criminal-justice system has eased; the number of people seeking treatment has grown; and the rates of drug-related deaths and cases of infectious diseases have fallen.

Surprisingly, political opposition has been tepid and there has never been a concerted repeal effort. Yet there is much to debate about the Portuguese approach to drug addiction.

Does it help people to quit, or does it transform them into more docile drug addicts, wards of an indulgent state, with little genuine incentive to alter their behavior?

By removing the fear of prosecution, does the government actually encourage addicts to seek treatment? Unfortunately, nothing about substance abuse is simple.

For instance, although many people maintain that addiction would decline if drugs were legal in the United States, the misuse of legally sold prescription medications has become a bigger health problem than the sale of narcotics or cocaine.

There are questions not only about the best way to address addiction but also about how far any society should go, morally, philosophically, and economically, to placate drug addicts.

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