Ten Years Ago Portugal Legalized All Drugs -- What Happened Next?
When the nation legalized all drugs within its borders, most critics predicted disaster. But a decade later, drug use has plunged dramatically.
By Tony O'Neil
Back in 2001, Portugal had the highest rate of HIV among injecting drug users in the European Union—an incredible 2,000 new cases a year, in a country with a population of just 10 million. Despite the predictable controversy the move stirred up at home and abroad, the Portuguese government felt there was no other way they could effectively quell this ballooning problem. While here in the U.S. calls for full drug decriminalization are still dismissed as something of a fringe concern, the Portuguese decided to do it, and have been quietly getting on with it now for a decade. Surprisingly, most credible reports appear to show that decriminalization has been a staggering success.
The DEA sees it a bit differently. Portugal, they say, was a disaster, with heroin and HIV rates out of control. "Portugal's addict population and the problems that go along with addiction continue to increase," the DEA maintains. "In an effort to reduce the number of addicts in the prison system, the Portuguese government has an enacted some radical policies in the last few years with the eventual decriminalization of all illicit drugs in July of 2001."
However, as Glenn Greenwald, the author of the Cato study, concludes: "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." Under the perfect system, treatment would also be voluntary, but as an alternative to jail, mandatory treatment save money. But for now, "the majority of EU states have rates that are double and triple the rate for post-decriminalization Portugal," Greenwald says.
We’re not holding our breath that the Portuguese example will lead to any kind of abrupt about-face in America's own sputtering drug war, which is still sputtering steadily along at a cost of trillions a year. However, with the medical marijuana movement so far refusing to be strangled out of existence by the DEA, Senators Jim Webb and Arlen Specter recently made a proposal to create a blue ribbon commission to look at prison and drug sentencing reform. And for any pro-legalization presidential hopefuls in 2012, the movement for a common sense drug policy in the United States may be finally moving into the mainstream.
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