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Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization work?

Posted by on May. 24, 2009 at 8:22 PM
  • 4 Replies

Pop quiz: Which European country has the most liberal drug laws? (Hint: It's not the Netherlands.)

Although its capital is notorious among stoners and college kids for marijuana haze-filled "coffee shops," 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.

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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.

The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half. In addition, the number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment as well.

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, author of the forthcoming When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment and 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.

But there is a movement afoot in the U.S., in the legislatures of New York State, California and Massachusetts, to reconsider our overly punitive drug laws. Recently, Senators Jim Webb and Arlen Specter proposed that Congress create a national commission, not unlike Portugal's, to deal with prison reform and overhaul drug-sentencing policy. As Webb noted, the U.S. is home to 5% of the global population but 25% of its prisoners.

At the Cato Institute in early April, Greenwald contended that a major problem with most American drug policy debate is that it's based on "speculation and fear mongering," rather than empirical evidence on the effects of more lenient drug policies. In Portugal, the effect was to neutralize what had become the country's number one public health problem, he says.

"The impact in the life of families and our society is much lower than it was before decriminalization," says Joao Castel-Branco Goulao, Portugual's "drug czar" and president of the Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction, adding that police are now able to re-focus on tracking much higher level dealers and larger quantities of drugs.

Peter Reuter, a professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Maryland, like Kleiman, is skeptical. He conceded in a presentation at the Cato Institute that "it's fair to say that decriminalization in Portugal has met its central goal. Drug use did not rise." However, he notes that Portugal is a small country and that the cyclical nature of drug epidemics - which tends to occur no matter what policies are in place - may account for the declines in heroin use and deaths.

The Cato report's author, Greenwald, hews to the first point: that the data shows that decriminalization does not result in increased drug use. Since that is what concerns the public and policymakers most about decriminalization, he says, "that is the central concession that will transform the debate."

http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1893946,00.html

Thoughts?

 


Thank God......it's Friday!!!

by on May. 24, 2009 at 8:22 PM
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anxiousschk
by anxiouss on May. 24, 2009 at 10:24 PM

Friday!!! So happy to see you here!

I must admit...out of EVERYTHING I've read that I've seen you post....THIS article is what makes me think the most.

I'm slowly coming over to the side of legalizing marijuana.....but I'm having a hard time with the idea of legalizing the other harder drugs that the article mentioned. 

So...did I read it right...they weren't really "legalized"...just that therapy was offered if you were caught with the drugs?

What would this do to our drug wars with Mexico?  I haven't quite thought that through....

 

Friday
by HRH of MJ on May. 24, 2009 at 10:39 PM


Quoting anxiousschk:

Friday!!! So happy to see you here!

I must admit...out of EVERYTHING I've read that I've seen you post....THIS article is what makes me think the most.

I'm slowly coming over to the side of legalizing marijuana.....but I'm having a hard time with the idea of legalizing the other harder drugs that the article mentioned. 

So...did I read it right...they weren't really "legalized"...just that therapy was offered if you were caught with the drugs?

What would this do to our drug wars with Mexico?  I haven't quite thought that through....

 

Long time no see! How are things?

I understand how you feel. I started off against all of it and slowly over the last few years after much research have ended up for legalization of all of it.

Basically, they were decriminalized as opposed to legalized. I prefer legalization simply because the tax revenue can help pay for programs to help those who choose.

The thing is, One the War on Drugs is an abject failure we are spending Billions and drug use hasn't changed much and Two it simply isn't the place of the govt to tell consenting adults what they can do to or with their own bodies.

Here is a great essay from the LEAP(Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) site.

Same Problem - Same Solution

By Kristin Daley, LEAP Projects Manager


Famed American gangster Al Capone led a crime organization based on the illegal trafficking of alcohol during the Prohibition of the 1920’s and 30’s. He is widely regarded as the most recognizable symbol of the collapse of law and order under the ban on alcohol in the United States. Capone graduated from petty crime to acting as an ‘apprentice’ in gangster John Torrio’s bootlegging business. When Torrio was shot by a rival gang and decided to leave Chicago, Capone inherited the bootlegging business. He quickly expanded it, and soon controlled a variety of business ranging from nightclubs, brothels and race tracks to the largest cleaning and dyeing plant chain in Chicago. When it was necessary for Capone to deal with law enforcement, he did so through bribery, threats, and assassinations. After one disorderly conduct arrest in New York, Capone murdered two men. This testament to his willingness to kill prevented any witnesses from agreeing to testify against Capone, and the case was dismissed. He was never charged for the murders, again due to lack of compliant witnesses. Capone did attempt to gain approval from the general public through sporadic “good deeds”: he opened the first soup kitchens in New York during the Great Depression, provided daily milk rations to schoolchildren, and he often sent flowers to the funerals of people he killed or ordered killed. He occasionally went so far as to attend the funerals. Capone viewed himself as a pillar of the community.

Following a path strikingly similar to Capone’s, Columbian drug dealer Pablo Escobar came to power in the 1970’s after a short career in petty crime. He began dealing cocaine, and in 1975 gained notoriety for the murder of Fabio Restrepo, a more recognized drug dealer at the time. Escobar then took over Restrepo’s business. In 1976, he was arrested during a drug run, and after an attempt to bribe the judge failed, Escobar ordered the arresting officers murdered. The charged were dropped. Like Capone, Escobar established a pattern of dealing with the law through bribery, intimidation, and murder. At the height of his power, Escobar was identified as the seventh-richest man in the world by Forbes magazine. According to Escobar’s brother Roberto, who served as his accountant, Escobar’s cartel controlled an estimated 80 percent of the cocaine industry, and earned roughly $390 billion annually at the height of its productivity in the 1980’s. He owned real estate, banks, huge amounts of land, factories, fleets of ships, airplanes, and a crew of white collar criminals to launder his money. Like Capone, Escobar viewed himself as a “modern-day Robin Hood”, claims his brother Roberto. Pablo once drove past a garbage dump, saw people living in the impoverished conditions, and built 2500 houses for them, known as “Barrio Pablo Escobar”.

The fact that both Capone and Escobar viewed themselves as “Robin Hood”-type figures, benevolent outlaws, is directly related to the fact that they were both in control of industries that were glamorized as much as they were demonized. Prohibition gives the criminal all the control: he sets the standard, establishes the rules and reaps the rewards. A wealthy drug lord who makes a show of public generosity gains more respect from the common man than the police officer trying to shut the operation down, no matter how despicable the criminal may be. Capone and Escobar gained unimaginable wealth and power because of prohibition, not in spite of it. Without a ban on alcohol or drugs, they would never have had the opportunity to take control. Ending prohibition and beginning a system of regulation and taxation takes away the criminal’s power. He no longer makes the rules. As the regulation and taxation of alcohol ended bootlegging, so will the end of drug prohibition end the illegal drug trade. Today, drugs are illegal, they are out of control, and they are everywhere. If they were managed in the way that alcohol is now managed, they would be under control. Instead of criminals getting richer, violence escalating, and drug-related deaths on the rise, we would live under a system of established pricing, peaceful purchase, and a regulated labeling system that would clearly list important information such as purity and dosage. Would there still be cases of overdose and addiction? Yes. But those are problems now, and a system of regulation would only decrease those instances. Prohibition is a false sense of control for the government. As Capone was in control during the prohibition of alcohol and Escobar was in control of the illegal drug trade in his time, so are the dealers in control under prohibition today.

Sources:
1. www.wikipedia.com
2. www.cocaine.org
3. www.gangstersinc.tripod.com (interview with Roberto Escobar)
4. www.chicagohs.org/history
5. www.crimelibrary.com

 

 


Thank God......it's Friday!!!

Eilish
by on May. 24, 2009 at 11:48 PM


Quoting anxiousschk:

Friday!!! So happy to see you here!

I must admit...out of EVERYTHING I've read that I've seen you post....THIS article is what makes me think the most.

I'm slowly coming over to the side of legalizing marijuana.....but I'm having a hard time with the idea of legalizing the other harder drugs that the article mentioned. 

So...did I read it right...they weren't really "legalized"...just that therapy was offered if you were caught with the drugs?

What would this do to our drug wars with Mexico?  I haven't quite thought that through....


Pretty sure the key word is "decrminalize" - that allows the government to not promote while at the same time, not treating it (and wasiting money on it) as a crime.

I'm for the decriminalization of pot .... the other one's I have a hard time letting go of too, but one has to remember that keeping it criminalized is not lowering the use of it; in fact it is only going up. And either way we would have to teach our kids to not do drugs.

As far as the drug wars, it would likely end them. If it was decriminalized that people would actually go into business making the stuff. And in an effort to make a profit, it would likely be a quality product. There also wouldn't be a need to go kill guy A for not paying up, becuase just like a business you would have to pay for it up front.

Decriminalizing drugs would definately give us some culture shock - it would take some getting used to.



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TabathaM
by Member on May. 25, 2009 at 12:20 AM

 

Decriminalization did work in Portugal. It worked amazingly. Though I think most people seriously misunderstand what is meant when we say Decriminalize.

I recently went to a presentation done by somebody on what they do in Portugal and the KEY part is that they don't treat drug addicts like criminals but they still treat them.

If you're caught with drugs you go to a tribunal made up of, typically a social worker, a healthcare worker, a counciller and a judge and they try and help the drug addict get the help they need. Rather then wasting tax dollars locking drug users up where they're more likely to get in worse drug habbits they rehabilitate them, treating thier drug addiction as an illness.

It's a very VERY cool program. I wish more countries would adopt it.

There drug trafficing and sale is still very much illegal and drug trafficing is treated like a crime as it would be any where else.

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