The liberal mantra of federal drug policy boils down to one sentence: Treat drug addiction as a public health problem, not a crime problem. In 2001, Portugal took a hardline stance on drug addiction that accomplished just that. The country decriminalized the use of all drugs.
Conservative spectators were sent reeling. Especially in the United States, where conservative orthodoxy was applied, hard and fast, to the country’s drug problem. After all, the conservative mantra of federal drug policy also boils down to one sentence: lock them up.
And so they did: today, thanks in part to the country’s punitive approach to drugs and drug addictions, the United States remains home to the highest rate of incarceration on the planet. So what about Portugal, the country that took the opposite approach—has their grand experiment on drug policy been a success?
Much of the confusion around Portugal’s drug laws revolve around the word “decriminalization.” The decriminalization of drugs essentially just puts drug use in the same legal category as other minor legal infractions (think speeding tickets or drinking in public.) You still can’t legally shoot heroin in the middle of the streets. If you do, however, and get caught for it, you’ll receive the same sort of punishment as you would if a police officer caught you drinking a beer in public: a fine, and likely a referral to an addiction center.
The sale of illegal drugs, however, still remains highly illegal in Portugal. If you’re caught trafficking illegal drugs, the result will be prison time. The thought process behind this is simple. If you’re addicted to a drug like heroin, your brain chemistry is literally re-arranged to push the need for this drug into priority number one. Think about when you’re severely dehydrated: you will have a hard time thinking about anything other than water. Similarly, if you’re addicted to heroin, your brain will prioritize the substance in a similar way. Therefore, addicts need institutional support from healthcare professionals to kick their addiction.
The overall point of Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs was to encourage users to seek medical help, both for treating their addiction and for managing their addictions safely with the advent of safe consumption rooms. And after implementing these policies in 2001, Portugal has seen incredible results.
As VICE reports, Portugal’s rate of new HIV infections has dropped from 1,016 cases in 2001 to 56 cases in 2012. And according to the Health Ministry, the number of Portuguese citizens who use heroin is down by about 75% since 2001.
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Kids play in the streets of Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon on June 29, 2016. (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Portugal’s success doesn’t end there.
In 2002, the year after Portugal decriminalized all drugs, the number of drug-induced deaths was cut in half. That number continued to drop in the following years, and now, there are rarely any drug-induced deaths in the country. In fact, as The Washington Post reports, compared to every other country in the European Union, Portugal has the second lowest rate of drug-induced deaths of people aged 15-64. “Among Portuguese adults, there are 3 drug overdose deaths for every 1,000,000 citizens.” Writes the Post.
It can be difficult to grasp the enormity of this data without putting it into perspective, so lets extrapolate these numbers a bit and compare them with the U.S. If Portugal’s rate of 3 drug overdose deaths per 1 million citizens were applied to the U.S. population of approximately 323 million people, you would have an annual death rate of about 969 adults. Compare that to the actual number of recorded drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2016, which was about 64,000.
Of course, opponents of Portugal’s drug policy will point out that the factors contributing to drug addiction and drug-overdoses are complex, and one should be careful about making comparisons between two vastly different countries like Portugal and the U.S. To an extent, this is fair enough. But considering both Portugal’s success in reducing disease and deaths by decriminalizing drugs, and the drug-overdose crisis spiraling out of control in the U.S., I doubt that the real danger lies in making these comparisons. Rather, the real danger—the one that claims tens of thousands of human lives each year— is the failure to recognize successful policies abroad and apply them at home.
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