The success of drug decriminalization in Portugal

It's been seven years since that country decriminalized all drugs. What lessons are there for American drug policy debates?

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

In 2001, Portugal became the only EU-member state to decriminalize drugs, a distinction which continues through to the present.  Last year, working with the Cato Institute, I went to that country in order to research the effects of the decriminalization law (which applies to all substances, including cocaine and heroin) and to interview both Portuguese and EU drug policy officials and analysts (the central EU drug policy monitoring agency is, by coincidence, based in Lisbon).  Evaluating the policy strictly from an empirical perspective, decriminalization has been an unquestionable success, leading to improvements in virtually every relevant category and enabling Portugal to manage drug-related problems (and drug usage rates) far better than most Western nations that continue to treat adult drug consumption as a criminal offense.

On April 3, at 12:00 noon, at the Cato Institute in Washington, I’ll be presenting the 50-page report I wrote for Cato, entitled Drug Decriminalization in Portugal.  Following my presentation, a supporter of drug criminalization laws — Peter Reuter, a Professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology — will comment on the report (and I’ll be able to comment after that), and then there will be a Q-and-A session with the audience.  The event is open to the public and free of charge.  Details and registration are here at Cato’s site, where the event can also be watched live online (and, possibly, on C-SPAN).

There is clearly a growing recognition around the world and even in the U.S. that, strictly on empirical grounds, criminalization approaches to drug usage and, especially, the ”War on Drugs,” are abject failures, because they worsen the exact problems they are ostensibly intended to address.  “Strictly on empirical grounds” means excluding from the assessment:  (a) ideological questions regarding the legitimacy of imprisoning adults for consuming drugs they choose to consume; (b) the evisceration of Constitutional and civil liberties wrought by drug criminalization; and (c) the extraordinary sums of money devoted to the War on Drugs both domestically and internationally.



Very recent events demonstrating this evolving public debate over drug policy include the declaration of the Drug War’s failure from several former Latin American leaders; a new Economist Editorial calling for full-scale drug legalization; new polls showing substantial and growing numbers of Americans (and a majority of Canadians) supportive of marijuana legalization; the decision of the DEA to make good on Obama’s campaign pledge to cease raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in states which have legalized its usage; and numerous efforts in the political mainstream to redress the harsh and disparate criminal penalties imposed for drug offenses, including Obama’s support for treatment rather than prison for first-time drug offenders.

Particularly in the U.S., there is still widespread support for criminalization approaches and even support for the most extreme and destructive aspects of the “War on Drugs,” but, for a variety of reasons, the debate over drug policy has become far more open than ever before.  Portugal’s success with decriminalization is highly instructive, particularly since the impetus for it was their collective recognition in the 1990s that criminalization was failing to address — and was almost certainly exacerbating — their exploding, poverty-driven drug crisis.  As a consensus in that country now recognizes, decriminalization is what enabled them to manage drug-related problems far more effectively than ever before, and the nightmare scenarios warned of by decriminalization opponents have, quite plainly, never materialized.

The counter-productive effects of drug criminalization are at least as evident now for the U.S. as they were for pre-decriminalization Portugal.  Beyond one’s ideological beliefs regarding the legitimacy of criminalization, drug policy should be determined by objective, empirical assessments of what works and what does not work.  It’s now been more than seven years since Portugal decriminalized all drugs, and dispassionately examining the effects of that decision provides a unique opportunity to assess questions of drug policy in the most rational and empirical manner possible.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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