Portugal and Drug Addiction

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 22, 2011

There are few issues on which I have changed my mind so completely as I have on the issue of drug policy. I used to be a stern abolitionist, who could never countenance arguments in favor of legalization. I am no rabid legalization advocate nowadays either, but I can certainly better appreciate arguments in its favor. Arguments such as the one found here:

In the end, there was no way to ignore the problem, and no way for politicians to spin it, either. Young people across Portugal were injecting themselves with heroin. HIV and Hepatitis C infection rates were soaring. And Casal Ventoso, a neighborhood in Lisbon, had become a dark symbol of this small nation’s immense drug problem. Junkies openly injected themselves in the street, dirty syringes piled up in the gutters, alleyways reeked of garbage and human waste, and no one seemed to care.

“Welcome to Lisbon’s drugs supermarket,” a police officer said to a visitor in 2001, surveying the daily depravity with a shrug. But João Goulão, Portugal’s drug czar, admits now that the police officer was probably understating it. “Casal Ventoso,” Goulão said recently, “was the biggest supermarket of drugs in Europe.”

Faced with both a public health crisis and a public relations disaster, Portugal’s elected officials took a bold step. They decided to decriminalize the possession of all illicit drugs — from marijuana to heroin — but continue to impose criminal sanctions on distribution and trafficking. The goal: easing the burden on the nation’s criminal justice system and improving the people’s overall health by treating addiction as an illness, not a crime.

Any number of public officials in Portugal predicted that this approach would be nothing short of disastrous:

As the sweeping reforms went into effect nine years ago, some in Portugal prepared themselves for the worst. They worried that the country would become a junkie nirvana, that many neighborhoods would soon resemble Casal Ventoso, and that tourists would come to Portugal for one reason only: to get high. “We promise sun, beaches, and any drug you like,” complained one fearful politician at the time.

They were wrong:

But nearly a decade later, there’s evidence that Portugal’s great drug experiment not only didn’t blow up in its face; it may have actually worked. More addicts are in treatment. Drug use among youths has declined in recent years. Life in Casal Ventoso, Lisbon’s troubled neighborhood, has improved. And new research, published in the British Journal of Criminology, documents just how much things have changed in Portugal. Coauthors Caitlin Elizabeth Hughes and Alex Stevens report a 63 percent increase in the number of Portuguese drug users in treatment and, shortly after the reforms took hold, a 499 percent increase in the amount of drugs seized — indications, the authors argue, that police officers, freed up from focusing on small-time possession, have been able to target big-time traffickers while drug addicts, no longer in danger of going to prison, have been able to get the help they need.

“Often, there are lot of fears, misconceptions, and mythology around decriminalization and what might be the consequences,” Hughes said. “This reform has shown that it is possible to decriminalize illicit drugs…without necessarily increasingly drug-related harm, without increasing the burden on the criminal justice system, and without increasing drug use.”

To be sure, there are plenty of people who dispute the argument that Portugal’s decision to decriminalize was the key to the lessening of the drug problem in the country. They may have a point; as the article makes clear, Portugal also increased access to treatment centers, and began to emphasize prevention more. Also, recently, drug use has gone back up again (though one wonders whether the uptick is only temporary, and though part of the uptick may indeed have been caused by “a shift in measurement practices”). All of these arguments are worth considering, and greater analysis is needed to determine the degree to which decriminalization alone helped Portugal overcome its national drug crisis.

Still, one cannot read about Portugal without coming away with the belief that perhaps, just perhaps, a major rethink is needed on the issue of drug policy; one that entertains seriously an argument in favor of drug legalization. As I say, I am not fully on board with the calls to legalize drugs. But I definitely am obliged by case studies such as the one presented by Portugal to take those calls more seriously. At the very least, I can announce myself to be one thousand percent in agreement with the following passage from the story:

In this sense, one drug policy expert noted, the Portuguese experiment has become a sort of Rorschach test — in the dark blobs on the page, people can see whatever they want to see. But Tom McLellan, the former deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Obama, said he’s happy for the conversation. While not in favor of decriminalization, McLellan believes that the American debate over drug reform has become too polarized, with one side calling for incarceration and the other for legalization. “And I just don’t buy it,” McLellan said. The answer is likely somewhere in the middle, he believes, and perhaps that’s where we can learn something from Portugal, a country that at least tried something new.

“I like that approach to drug policy,” McLellan said. “Policy is really a product. And like a product, policy can be made better with experimentation and honest evaluation, rather than stupid polemic polarization of ideology.”

Quite so. Let a greater debate begin.

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