Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Drug Decriminalisation is Working in Portugal: Opponents and the UN admit it!

In light of the fact that Nigel Meek and the Society for Individual Freedom are planning to publish my most recent blog post on drugs in their journal The Individual, perhaps this could be considered a follow up.

In this country if the number of deaths and cases of HIV linked to drug abuse rose, health workers in the ruling class, politicians, and all sorts of legal types would clamour for a tightening up of the laws, inevitably taking the form of greater penalties for possession (since it is easier to get arrest figures that way). And the public would lap it up.

Not in Portugal. Following an increase in drug related deaths and HIV contractions, the Portuguese government decided that the appropriate response was decriminalisation.

In the face of a growing number of deaths and cases of HIV linked to drug abuse, the Portuguese government in 2001 tried a new tack to get a handle on the problem—it decriminalized the use and possession of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, LSD and other illicit street drugs. The theory: focusing on treatment and prevention instead of jailing users would decrease the number of deaths and infections.

Note, decriminalisation, not legalisation, of course:

"Now instead of being put into prison, addicts are going to treatment centers and they're learning how to control their drug usage or getting off drugs entirely," report author Glenn Greenwald, a former New York State constitutional litigator, said during a press briefing at Cato last week.

Under the Portuguese plan, penalties for people caught dealing and trafficking drugs are unchanged; dealers are still jailed and subjected to fines depending on the crime. But people caught using or possessing small amounts—defined as the amount needed for 10 days of personal use—are brought before what's known as a "Dissuasion Commission," an administrative body created by the 2001 law.

Each three-person commission includes at least one lawyer or judge and one health care or social services worker. The panel has the option of recommending treatment, a small fine, or no sanction...

Drug legalization removes all criminal penalties for producing, selling and using drugs; no country has tried it. In contrast, decriminalization, as practiced in Portugal, eliminates jail time for drug users but maintains criminal penalties for dealers.

Of course, something closer to legalisation is what my previous blog post called for, since it was principally about getting the provision of drugs out of the hands of gangs by letting normal businesses sell it legally. However, the results in Portugal are still heartening.

Five years later, the number of deaths from street drug overdoses dropped from around 400 to 290 annually, and the number of new HIV cases caused by using dirty needles to inject heroin, cocaine and other illegal substances plummeted from nearly 1,400 in 2000 to about 400 in 2006, according to a report released recently by the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C, libertarian think tank.

Of course, libertarians are bound to want to say that decriminalisation has had positive results, so maybe a reader would suspect the authors of this report of bias. However, even skeptics seem positive about what has happened, or not happened, in Portugal:

Peter Reuter, a criminologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, says he's skeptical decriminalization was the sole reason drug use slid in Portugal, noting that another factor, especially among teens, was a global decline in marijuana use. By the same token, he notes that critics were wrong in their warnings that decriminalizing drugs would make Lisbon a drug mecca.

"Drug decriminalization did reach its primary goal in Portugal," of reducing the health consequences of drug use, he says, "and did not lead to Lisbon becoming a drug tourist destination."

Of course, while "Spain and Italy have also decriminalized personal use of drugs and Mexico's president has proposed doing the same," some people remain unable to learn lessons:

Walter Kemp, a spokesperson for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, says decriminalization in Portugal "appears to be working." He adds that his office is putting more emphasis on improving health outcomes, such as reducing needle-borne infections, but that it does not explicitly support decriminalization, "because it smacks of legalization." ...

A spokesperson for the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy declined to comment, citing the pending Senate confirmation of the office's new director, former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs also declined to comment on the report.

Failing to explicitly support decriminalisation does not mean that many in that UN Office may support it anyway, of course, but the lack of any comment at all from the relevant US bodies (and, apparently, those in the UK) seems like somebody burying their head in the sand, in a determined effort to ignore anything that may harm their own mindset.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has heroin use risen 10% in Portugal since "decriminalization"?

6:34 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Apparently not:

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.

Source: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1893946,00.html

Besides, even if there were an increase in use, that need not be bad thing if it were an increase in the usage of clean heroin to which there was an easy, regular supply, compared to randomly adulterated crap sold on a black market.

2:05 PM  

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