Learning from Portugal’s drug policy

By Bianca Uribe
New York, N.Y.

Back in the 1800s, drugs like heroin and cocaine were not only legal, but could be purchased out of the Sears catalog. At the time, the public was not aware of the drugs’ adverse effects, and some parents gave their teething children opium for pain. A common treatment for lethargy was a form of liquid cocaine called “Coca Wine.”

But in 1970, President Richard Nixon began the country’s “war on drugs” by pressing Congress to pass the Controlled Substances Act, which regulates the manufacture, importation, possession, distribution and use of certain substances.

The modern-day result of the CSA is unacceptable. Drug use continues largely unaffected after years of “war.” In 2011, more than 330,000 people were in prison for drug-related offenses, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice. Meanwhile, billions of taxpayer dollars are spent annually on drug prosecution of individuals who frequently turn into repeat offenders.

The CSA is an obsolete collection of laws that favors draconian enforcement over treatment and research. It should be modified to legalize possession of small quantities of drugs, and to prioritize drug treatment for low-level offenders. Portugal’s drug laws provide a good example for what U.S. drug policy should be.

After Portugal escaped military dictatorship in 1974, the country quickly devolved into a drug epidemic, with the government scrambling to increase funding for drug prosecutions as the number of addicts continued to grow.

Recognizing that a policy of traditional enforcement was not working, in 2001 the Portuguese government opted for a more novel approach, legalizing possession of quantities of drugs consistent with individual use. Now, people in Portugal can lawfully walk down the streets of Lisbon with about a gram of heroin and five grams of hashish.

In lieu of handcuffs, Portuguese authorities often provide addicts with rehab programs, and help former drug dealers to reintegrate into society once treatment is complete.

The results have been dramatic. According to the Scientific American, five years after Portugal’s partial decriminalization, drug overdoses plummeted and annual HIV infections from dirty needles fell by more than 70 percent.

The United States is obviously not Portugal, and to be sure, there are problems with the Portuguese approach to drug policy. Not prosecuting users deprives police of leverage that investigators have historically used to “persuade” addicts to become cooperating witnesses against higher-level drug dealers. And permitting wide-scale drug use runs the risk of only increasing a country’s drug problems while enriching drug traffickers and distributors, who will profit from the broader customer base.

However, shifting law enforcement officials’ attention from drug users to drug dealers may finally lead to police focusing on the really dangerous people: the people who supply both the drugs and the violence that inevitably follows. In this era of government austerity, the laws should be changed so that government is focusing on the real problem. And the way to do that is to take a page out of Portugal’s drug policy playbook.

The war on drugs has been raging for more than 40 years now, and all the United States has to show for it is a high price tag and thousands of temporarily incarcerated, but ultimately harmless, drug addicts. Now is the time for Congress to revamp the CSA to deal with the real problem, and end our irrational fear of an inanimate substance.

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