America’s policymakers evidently didn’t learn anything from the disaster that was alcohol prohibition. (Jeff Sessions clearly didn’t!)
In fact, for a country whose citizens constantly assert a belief in individual liberty, we rank right up there on the forced prudery scale. As any historian or political scientist can confirm, America’s legal landscape is littered with religious moralism masquerading as public safety.
When it came to drug use, and our incredibly expensive and demonstrably ineffective drug war, moralism joined hands with racism, first against Asians and Opium, and then against African-Americans, as Michelle Alexander copiously documented in The New Jim Crow.
Years of criminal justice research have confirmed the futility–and injustice–of America’s approach to drug prohibition, an approach that creates drug “schedules” unsupported by evidence of harm, fails to distinguish between use and abuse, treats drug use as a criminal justice issue rather than a public health problem, and requires massive wasteful public expenditures.
Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001. Weed, cocaine, heroin, you name it — Portugal decided to treat possession and use of small quantities of these drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one. The drugs were still illegal, of course. But now getting caught with them meant a small fine and maybe a referral to a treatment program — not jail time and a criminal record.
The reactions from so-called “experts” were predictable. And wrong.
Whenever we debate similar measures in the U.S. — marijuana decriminalization, for instance — many drug-policy makers predict dire consequences. “If you make any attractive commodity available at lower cost, you will have more users,” former Office of National Drug Control Policy deputy director Thomas McLellan once said of Portugal’s policies. Joseph Califano, founder of the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, once warned that decriminalization would “increase illegal drug availability and use among our children.”
But in Portugal, the numbers paint a different story. The prevalence of past-year and past-month drug use among young adults has fallen since 2001, according to statistics compiled by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which advocates on behalf of ending the war on drugs. Overall adult use is down slightly too. And new HIV cases among drug users are way down.
Now, numbers just released from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction paint an even more vivid picture of life under decriminalization: drug overdose deaths in Portugal are the second-lowest in the European Union.
Portugal has now operated under decriminalization for fifteen years, a time period sufficient to allow us to draw some conclusions. At a minimum, we can conclude that the country hasn’t experienced the dire consequences that opponents of decriminalization predicted. The Transform Drug Policy Institute, which has analyzed Portugal’s policy outcomes, says of of Portugal’s drug laws,
The reality is that Portugal’s drug situation has improved significantly in several key areas. Most notably, HIV infections and drug-related deaths have decreased, while the dramatic rise in use feared by some has failed to materialise.
Of course, there are other aspects of Portuguese society that are important contributors to these salutary results. As an article from Vice points out,
Though often narrowly assessed in reference to its decriminalization law, Portugal’s experience over the last decade and a half speaks as much to its free public health system, extensive treatment programs, and the hard to quantify trickle down effects of the legislation. In a society where drugs are less stigmatized, problem users are more likely to seek out care.
So let’s see….a country that doesn’t stigmatize or criminalize personal drug use, and provides its population with an extensive “free public health system” seems to have solved–or at least significantly moderated–its drug problem.
And of course, Portugal–like every other industrialized country— spends far less per capita on medical care than the U.S. does.
We don’t learn from our own failures, and we refuse to learn from other countries’ successes. I think that’s what’s called American Exceptionalism.