Monday, May 4, 2009

WHAT PORTUGAL CAN TEACH US ABOUT DEALING WITH DRUGS

Glenn Greenwald, Cato - On July 1, 2001, a nationwide law in Portugal took effect that decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Under the new legal framework, all drugs were "decriminalized," not "legalized." Thus, drug possession for personal use and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited, but violations of those prohibitions are deemed to be exclusively administrative violations and are removed completely from the criminal realm. Drug trafficking continues to be prosecuted as a criminal offense.

While other states in the European Union have developed various forms of de facto decriminalization - whereby substances perceived to be less serious (such as cannabis) rarely lead to criminal prosecution - Portugal remains the only EU member state with a law explicitly declaring drugs to be "decriminalized." Because more than seven years have now elapsed since enactment of Portugal's decriminalization system, there are ample data enabling its effects to be assessed.

Notably, decriminalization has become increasingly popular in Portugal since 2001. Except for some far-right politicians, very few domestic political factions are agitating for a repeal of the 2001 law. And while there is a widespread perception that bureaucratic changes need to be made to Portugal's decriminalization framework to make it more efficient and effective, there is no real debate about whether drugs should once again be criminalized. More significantly, none of the nightmare scenarios touted by preenactment decriminalization opponents - from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for "drug tourists" - has occurred.

The political consensus in favor of decriminalization is unsurprising in light of the relevant empirical data. Those data indicate that decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal, which, in numerous categories, are now among the lowest in the EU, particularly when compared with states with stringent criminalization regimes. Although post-decriminalization usage rates have remained roughly the same or even decreased slightly when compared with other EU states, drug-related pathologies - such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage - have decreased dramatically. Drug policy experts attribute those positive trends to the enhanced ability of the Portuguese government to offer treatment programs to its citizens - enhancements made possible, for numerous reasons, by decriminalization.

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