v'ܩ Want to Decrease Illegal Drug Use? Decriminilize it!
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Want to Decrease Illegal Drug Use? Decriminilize It!

April 26th, 2009

Five years ago Portugal decriminalized all illegal drugs when it comes to personal use. This doesn’t make it legal, but rather this makes the personal use of illegal drugs a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Many U.S. states have similar laws concerning the use of marijuana, Ohio would be an example, but none have decriminalized illegal drugs to the extent of Portugal. Portugal’s decriminalization includes such items as: marijuana, heroine, cocaine, methamphetamine and others. Here we are five years later and the libertarian minded think-tank The Cato Institute has released a report detailing the fallout from this law change - and why the results aren’t what many would have expected.

The Numbers

The exact law change enacted in Portugal removed all jail time for possession of illegal substances intended for personal use and instead required a meeting with a social worker, psychologist, and legal advisor to discuss receiving free treatment - with the ability to refuse treatment without any punishment. The results reported by the Cato Institute are surprising. The amount of illegal drug use amongst teens dropped. The rate of new cases of HIV infection resulting from the sharing of ‘dirty needles’ dropped and the number of people seeking treatment doubled. Time Magazine provides some of the exact numbers:

The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half. In addition, the number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment as well.

What this means for the U.S.

Studies like this are very important and should be considered by people on both sides of the aisle. The evangelical right wants to see illegal drug use obliterated - I think this may give them some insight into how best to achieve their goals. After all, “You catch more bees with honey than vinegar”. For the liberal left this puts them one step closer to the complete legalization of ‘controlled substances’. Most importantly, for the libertarians this type of legislation would put us closer to a government that doesn’t inflict it’s will upon the citizenry for things it shouldn’t be allowed to govern and we can start nibbling at fiscal responsibility by recognizing that many Americans don’t want their tax dollars squandered on the imprisonment of people whose only crime is personal drug use.

One thing is for sure - reports like this combined with our current Presidential Administration make a change in illegal substance legislation more likely than ever and that is something libertarians, liberals, and conservatives should all be happy about. This is a situation where I believe we can all win.

Related: Legalize Marijuana, End Budget Crisis

Creative Commons License photo credit: robmcbell

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Author: T.J. Seabrooks Categories: General Politics Tags: ,
  1. Jeffrey
    April 26th, 2009 at 17:04 | #1

    As a libertarian this makes perfect sense. Obvious the “War on Drugs” is ineffective, and a new course should be taken. It also sets a precedence to stop legislating morality.

  2. Peter
    April 26th, 2009 at 17:23 | #2

    Great article guys. Interesting also is the magazine the Economist has long held the position that the best worst case situation would be to legalize and or regulate drugs because the money wasted on trying to enforce these laws and imprison the people who have them/use them is more then the cost of legalizing them and letting people choose and possible helping people get treatment.

  3. April 26th, 2009 at 20:45 | #3

    Peter, that’s absolutely right. I’m not sure if this report shows that in this case though. I believe in the case of Portugal they are diverting the funds that would have gone to law enforcement into treatment but it wasn’t clear to me if this covered the entire cost. It might be interesting if someone did the math, maybe the economist already has, that makes some assumptions and determines weather the tax payers win under this scenario - and by how much. We assume that maybe half of the violators accept treatment (This is higher than reality but should artificially increase our cost) and perhaps only 20% of them stay clean. some of these people will go through the program multiple times. What do these numbers need to work out to for the taxpayers to win fiscally? Peter, if you have the economist article handy please send me an email with a link. I’ll add it to the bottom of this article. Thanks.

  4. April 26th, 2009 at 23:38 | #4

    if you want the taxpayers to win, completely legalize the lower end drugs like marijuana and tax them. that would almost certainly be revenue positive, and that money could be used for the rehab.

  5. TJ
    April 27th, 2009 at 06:35 | #5

    Absolutely Derek… Unfortunately I think and idea like Portugal’s is far more likely to happen than complete legalization. It’d be a sort of middle gorund…

  6. May 1st, 2009 at 17:39 | #6

    As much as I love marijuana, law unfortunately doesn’t. I was really suprised to find out that some alternatives are actually pretty decent. They’ll never replace my first love, but at least they can be a good hold-over.

  7. NorskeDiv
    April 29th, 2010 at 12:13 | #7

    Legalize or decriminalize Marijuana.

    But Heroine, Crack, Meth? Is the first poster here actually suggesting we decriminalize extremely addictive hard drugs? I can see eliminating punishments for end users (small amounts) but never the dealers. There isn’t a well functioning society in human history where Heroine or anything nearly that addictive has been readily available. China fought two wars to try to stop Opium imports because they were destroying the country. Is that the model the hard core libertarians want to follow, circa 1870 China?

    Furthermore I think the “legalize everything” crowd damages the Marijuana push. They make the whole movement seem laughable and naive.

    Oh yeah, there is a substance as addictive as Heroine which is legal, Nicotine. Now imagine if nicotine were as destructive as Heroine.

  8. NorskeDiv
    April 29th, 2010 at 12:24 | #8

    Also, here’s another reason blanket legalization would be bad. Cheap and readily available supplies of Heroine and Crack would increase use, there’d be a panic, and ALL drugs would again be made illegal. Follow a sensible sustainable approach. Decriminalize hard drugs for end users, but crack down on producers and distributors.

  9. NorskeDiv
    April 29th, 2010 at 12:25 | #9

    PS. It was the congressional black caucus which pushed for our extremely tough sentences for crack cocaine.