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Comparing Portugal’s Drug Policy To The US, And Why It’s Working.

by Rose

It doesn’t take much observation to conclude that current U.S. drug policy simply isn’t working. It has never worked, and has never so much as put a dent in this country’s drug problem.

The evolution of our policies and our “War on Drugs” has created far-reaching problems that will take years to fix as awareness grows and policies change. The War on Drugs didn’t work. It became a war on the people of America. It became a war against the poor, people of color and people who are sick. It put young men and women in prison for drug-related offenses, and in doing so, created criminals. It displaced families and poured money into militarization of police forces and the judicial and penal systems, instead of treatment and community. The war on drugs has failed, and deeply wounded the country’s economy, morale and population.

The United States’ drug policy has been roundly criticized by more progressive nations for years.

How Portugal Has Handled Their Drug Policy

In 2001, Portugal made the decision to decriminalize all drugs. All drugs means everything from marijuana to crack cocaine to heroin. At first glance, this may seem crazy. Why would a country do this? Critics of this decision cited fears that Portugal would experience an upswing in drug use and that it would become a haven for drug tourists. But this didn’t happen. Let’s take a closer look at what did.

First, what does decriminalization mean? It shouldn’t be confused with legalization. These are two separate things. Many of the arguments against decriminalization point to countries that have legalized illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine. In these cases, drug use does tend to rise. Decriminalization is a different animal. It doesn’t give citizens free license to get high and sell dope.

Selling and distributing drugs in Portugal is illegal. Walking around with heroin in your pocket, or doing drugs at a party isn’t encouraged. You can still get into trouble for manufacturing or selling drugs. What it means is that being a drug addict doesn’t make you a criminal.

This is important.

In the United States, admitting you have a drug problem means admitting that you are, in fact, a criminal. It’s true. If you are addicted to heroin, cocaine, or up until recently, marijuana, you were a criminal who has likely committed infractions that could easily land you in prison. No wonder people don’t want to get help. Fear of legal consequences has long kept addicted persons from asking for help. And, it has created an environment of fear and distrust, as well as contributed to the stigma associated with drug use, yet another barrier to getting help.

Much of the solution here is in the labeling. In Portugal, folks who are caught with illicit drugs are not tried in a criminal court. They aren’t treated as criminals. They are evaluated in a special proceeding overseen by health care and social work professionals to determine the best course of action. Addicts are not called criminals.

What has been the result? Lowered cases of overdose and death. Reduced instances of HIV, Hepatitis C and other STD’s. A significant reduction in overall addiction numbers, giving Portugal the lowest rates in the EU. These results are hard to ignore.

What Went Wrong With America?

The usual. Fear, media sensationalism, and racism. Moralization, particularly by politicians, many of whom indulged in drugs themselves. Discrimination against the poor. Former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates was once quoted as saying that casual drug users should be “taken out and shot.” Attitudes such as this helped create drug policy in America.

Are Things Changing In The United States?

Slowly, yes. It has been a long road. Looking back you can see so many times that laws and policies were created that set the stage for overpopulated jails and prisons, and sick people condemned to only get sicker. Nixon decreeing that marijuana should become a schedule one drug. The ridiculous disparity in jail sentences for crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine users. This, in particular, showcased the racism that was often at the core of the War on Drugs.

As long as addicts are viewed as criminals, as long as people can’t get access to clean needles and as long as non-violent, drug-related offenses are resulting in prison terms instead of treatment, America will continue to suffer the effects of our outdated, misinformed and wasteful drug war.

Learning From Portugal

When people feel safe enough to open up about their drug problem, healing can take place. No one wants to be a drug addict. There is a mistaken belief that the worst thing about drug addiction is the threat of jail time. People who believe this have obviously never experienced addiction.

Addiction takes a toll on people’s health, relationships and financial well-being. Not everyone who uses drugs will become addicted. Those who do, need help. It may take a while for that realization to sink in, but it does eventually. The problem is that by the time an average American has come to terms with their addiction, they may have already done time. Jails and prisons do not reform, nor do they rehabilitate. They institutionalize. They create PTSD and encourage discrimination. People come out of penal institutions unable to get jobs, estranged from family and stigmatized by society. This is not conducive to anything but going out and getting more drugs. Our policies to not heal, they harm.

Still, reform is happening. More money is being earmarked for treatment programs, more programs exist that help keep people out of jails and more research is being done that helps us learn about addiction, treating it and preventing it. Hopefully, we can move forward and pass legislation that can put these outdated and ineffective policies behind us for good.

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