For over 100 years the United States has used prohibition to curtail drug use. The results have been less than impressive. Michael Botticelli, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the War on Drugs has consisted of “failed policies and failed practices.”
An alternative to prohibition is legalization.
In 2001 Portugal shocked the world and voted to decriminalize all drugs in response to a growing heroin problem. Today Portugal boasts one of the lowest drug-usage rates in Europe. Drug trafficking remains illegal, but drug users are considered ill rather than criminal. People caught with less than a 10-day supply of hard drugs are taken before a special court of legal experts, psychologists and social workers. The goal is a health-focused solution to drug use, with an occasional small fine or community service.
Fifteen years later drug use among 15 to 24 year-olds has decreased dramatically and drug induced deaths has dropped from 80 in 2001 to 16 in 2012. Before 2001 Portugal jailed roughly 100,000 drug users, but within the 10 years of the policy’s adoption, this number halved.
Individuals registered in rehab has risen from 6,000 in 1999 to more than 24,000 in 2008. Injection rates are particularly important when discussing drug-related disease and heroin users who inject have decreased from 45 percent to 17 percent. . Drug addicts now account for only 20 percent of HIV cases in the country, a significant improvement from the previous 56 percent.
As people get help for their drug use, the demand for drugs decreases. When demand falls, drug suppliers make less profit and are forced to exit the market.
A 2010 study in the British Journal of Criminology found after decriminalization, Portugal saw a significant reduction in the imprisonment of alleged drug dealers: from 14,000 in 2000 to 5,000 in 2010. Also, the proportion of people in jail for crimes committed while under the influence of drugs or to feed a drug habit fell from 41 percent in 1999 to 21 percent in 2008.
By redirecting resources previously allocated to arresting and jailing drug users, Portugal has created a healthier society. Alex Steven, president of the International Society of the Study of Drug Policy, said:
“The main lesson to learn (is) decriminalizing drugs doesn’t necessarily lead to disaster, and it does free up resources for more effective responses to drug-related problems.”
Drug use in the United States has remained relatively unchanged for the past decade. Each year 1.5 million people are arrested on drug-related charges, 80 percent for mere possession. Half of all federal incarcerations are drug-related.
Few would argue that drug use isn’t the problem. Without a doubt, drug use presents problems for public health and destroys many lives, but when examining the efficacy of drug policies, the U.S. model is nothing short of a complete failure. It is time to look at alternatives and as the Portuguese case illustrates, so-called “radical” policies may be perfectly reasonable.