E.D. Kain has been a long time critic of the Drug War in the United States and brings up the case of Portugal as proof that legalization will not bring hell and damnation in the United States.
Health experts in Portugal said Friday that Portugal’s decision 10 years ago to decriminalise drug use and treat addicts rather than punishing them is an experiment that has worked.
“There is no doubt that the phenomenon of addiction is in decline in Portugal,” said Joao Goulao, President of the Institute of Drugs and Drugs Addiction, a press conference to mark the 10th anniversary of the law.
The number of addicts considered “problematic” — those who repeatedly use “hard” drugs and intravenous users — had fallen by half since the early 1990s, when the figure was estimated at around 100,000 people, Goulao said.
Other factors had also played their part however, Goulao, a medical doctor added.
“This development can not only be attributed to decriminalisation but to a confluence of treatment and risk reduction policies.”
Many of these innovative treatment procedures would not have emerged if addicts had continued to be arrested and locked up rather than treated by medical experts and psychologists. Currently 40,000 people in Portugal are being treated for drug abuse. This is a far cheaper, far more humane way to tackle the problem. Rather than locking up 100,000 criminals, the Portuguese are working to cure 40,000 patients and fine-tuning a whole new canon of drug treatment knowledge at the same time.
None of this is possible when waging a war.
Walter Russell Mead agrees that the Drug War has been a waste of resources, but thinks legalization won’t be so simple:
I’ve never really said much about the drug war and drug laws because, I’ve never really been a drug user. I’ve never smoked (tobbaco or marijuana), I don’t drink much and I’ve never done any other drug. That said, I’ve roomed with folks who did toke every now and then, I didn’t really mind that much.
I tend to think that the drug war isn’t working, and I do favor decriminalizing marijuana. But, I don’t know if ending the drug war and legalizing all drugs is going to lead to social peace or even to the result that we see in Portugal.
The conservative in me (and I mean that philispohically, not politically) is wary of change. I don’t think making all drugs legal is going to make everything wonderful. It might even bring about problems we never thought about.
Also what works in Portugal may not always work in the United States. Can we compare the inner city of Lisbon to say Chicago? I don’t know.
I agree with E.D. that our current drug policies aren’t working, but I have to side with Mead on this whole issue. Legalization is mostly likely the least bad option. What I don’t know is if it will be the best option for our society.
Turning more plagues loose in society seems like a bad idea — yet we may have reached the point where some form of negotiated ceasefire in the war on drugs is our least bad choice.
If we go down that road, we are going to have to find ways to discourage drug use more effectively than anything we now do. We cannot simply open the floodgates; for one thing, if a large legal market exists we will soon see people developing new designer drugs at a rapid pace. We will then find ourselves in an interesting position: will we say that drugs intended for medical purposes must pass rigorous testing before they can be prescribed, but recreational drugs can just be unleashed on the market? Is the FDA going to test drugs like ecstasy, crack cocaine and methamphetamine for purity and safety? Will new drugs be illegal until the FDA approves them or can any fly by night chemist cook up a batch of something in the basement and sell it on the street?…
The new policy would keep a lot of people out of jail, but the increased availability and greater variety of drugs under a legal regime would expose young people in particular to a series of waves of new drug addictions. Given the bleak landscape that many inner city residents face — unemployment rates at Depression levels, weak or non-existent family ties, the constant presence of affluence that is right in your face but completely out of reach — a modification of the drug laws is likely to lead to increased abuse of powerful and destructive drugs. The consequence of that drug abuse will be to further reduce peoples’ ability to get out of poverty themselves or to provide stable homes for their children.
One should also note that the collapse of the illegal drug business is going to destroy the one industry in this country which gives low income, uneducated inner city youth significant opportunities. The transfer of this business and this income stream to legitimate channels (whether private or public) is going to take money and jobs out of the inner city. By dramatically reducing the incarceration rate of young Black men and closing down illegal enterprises (both good things in and of themselves) we will be dramatically exacerbating the problems of unemployment and poverty among a very volatile group of people. It is not entirely clear to me that the result of these two changes will be a fall in the crime rate and an outbreak of social peace.