What Portugal Can Teach Us About The Drug War

America’s policymakers evidently didn’t learn anything from the disaster that was alcohol prohibition. (Jeff Sessions clearly didn’t!)

In fact, for a country whose citizens constantly assert a belief in individual liberty, we rank right up there on the forced prudery scale. As any historian or political scientist can confirm, America’s legal landscape is littered with religious moralism masquerading as public safety.

When it came to drug use, and our incredibly expensive and demonstrably ineffective drug war, moralism joined hands with racism, first against Asians and Opium, and then against African-Americans, as Michelle Alexander copiously documented in The New Jim Crow. 

Years of criminal justice research have confirmed the futility–and injustice–of America’s approach to drug prohibition, an approach that creates drug “schedules” unsupported by evidence of harm, fails to distinguish between use and abuse, treats drug use as a criminal justice issue rather than a public health problem, and requires massive wasteful public expenditures.

Those are mistakes Portugal no longer makes.

Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001. Weed, cocaine, heroin, you name it — Portugal decided to treat possession and use of small quantities of these drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one. The drugs were still illegal, of course. But now getting caught with them meant a small fine and maybe a referral to a treatment program — not jail time and a criminal record.

The reactions from so-called “experts” were predictable. And wrong.

Whenever we debate similar measures in the U.S. — marijuana decriminalization, for instance — many drug-policy makers predict dire consequences. “If you make any attractive commodity available at lower cost, you will have more users,” former Office of National Drug Control Policy deputy director Thomas McLellan once said of Portugal’s policies. Joseph Califano, founder of the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, once warned that decriminalization would “increase illegal drug availability and use among our children.”

But in Portugal, the numbers paint a different story. The prevalence of past-year and past-month drug use among young adults has fallen since 2001, according to statistics compiled by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which advocates on behalf of ending the war on drugs. Overall adult use is down slightly too. And new HIV cases among drug users are way down.

Now, numbers just released from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction paint an even more vivid picture of life under decriminalization: drug overdose deaths in Portugal are the second-lowest in the European Union.

Portugal has now operated under decriminalization for fifteen years, a time period sufficient to allow us to draw some conclusions. At a minimum, we can conclude that the country hasn’t experienced the dire consequences that opponents of decriminalization predicted.  The Transform Drug Policy Institute, which has analyzed Portugal’s policy outcomes, says of  of Portugal’s drug laws,

The reality is that Portugal’s drug situation has improved significantly in several key areas. Most notably, HIV infections and drug-related deaths have decreased, while the dramatic rise in use feared by some has failed to materialise.

Of course, there are other aspects of Portuguese society that are important contributors to these salutary results. As an article from Vice points out,

Though often narrowly assessed in reference to its decriminalization law, Portugal’s experience over the last decade and a half speaks as much to its free public health system, extensive treatment programs, and the hard to quantify trickle down effects of the legislation. In a society where drugs are less stigmatized, problem users are more likely to seek out care.

So let’s see….a country that doesn’t stigmatize or criminalize personal drug use, and provides its population with an extensive “free public health system” seems to have solved–or at least significantly moderated–its drug problem.

And of course, Portugal–like every other industrialized country— spends far less per capita on medical care than the U.S. does.

We don’t learn from our own failures, and we refuse to learn from other countries’ successes. I think that’s what’s called American Exceptionalism.


Just Like Milton Friedman Predicted..

Libertarian economist Milton Friedman was a noted critic of America’s Drug War, pointing out all of the reasons why prohibition doesn’t work. One such reason: When a substance is illegal, the price will rise to accommodate the risk; the higher price and promise of greater profit encourages more lawbreakers.

Too bad Friedman didn’t live long enough to see his argument confirmed.

In a recent Washington Post story about drugs and Mexico, I came across the following interesting tidbit:

 Farmers in the storied “Golden Triangle” region of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, which has produced the country’s most notorious gangsters and biggest marijuana harvests, say they are no longer planting the crop. Its wholesale price has collapsed in the past five years, from $100 per kilogram to less than $25.

“It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Silla, 50, a lifelong cannabis farmer who said he couldn’t remember the last time his family and others in their tiny hamlet gave up growing mota. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”

 ‘Nuff said.


Yielding My Time/Space to Paul Ogden

While I don’t always agree with his policy prescriptions, I consider Paul Ogden one of the most thoughtful and consistent of Indianaplis’ local bloggers.

His post this morning responds to this morning’s headline trumpeting a ‘drug bust’ and expands upon my post drawing parallels to prohibition. Accordingly, I am, as they say in Congress, yielding my time to the gentleman from Ogden on Politics. Ponder his message, with which I agree 100%.

We Never Learn….

Thanks to the magic of TIVO, Bob and I were able to watch the entire six hours of Ken Burns’ “Prohibition”–we just watched the last 2-hour episode last night. I defy anyone to watch this documentary without recognizing the parallels with our contemporary drug war; they practically jump out of the screen and punch the viewer.

Prohibition was one of those periodic efforts made by still-Puritan Americans to use the power of government to ensure the “good behavior” of their neighbors. (The Puritans, of course, get to define “good behavior.”) As we all know, it was a disaster, which is why it was the only Constitutional Amendment ever repealed. Crime and murder rates rose exponentially, corruption was rampant, enforcement was selective–and more people drank during prohibition than either before or after.

What is less often recognized is how significantly prohibition enabled the growth of the federal government’s infrastructure. Depending upon your point of view, that may be good or bad, but it’s ironic. As historians and political scientists have demonstrated, the “morality police” tend to be proponents of local control.

What is so discouraging about this exploration of our “great experiment” is that we have learned nothing. The only difference between alcohol and drug prohibition is that the former was constitutionalized. Otherwise, we are seeing precisely the same results. When a substance is forbidden, not only do people crave it, they are willing to spend more to obtain it, consistent with the risk involved. So we have more crime, more corruption, and (if experiments in countries like Portugal are any indication) more drug use.

At the end of the documentary, someone pointed to the obvious: when a substance is outlawed, anyone willing to break the law can get it. When it is legal, it can be regulated–the government can ensure that it isn’t adulterated with dangerous additives, that it is kept away from children, etc. As the noted libertarian Peter McWilliams once put it, “When was the last time you saw the owner of the local liquor store hanging around the schoolyard whispering “Hey, kid–just got in a new shipment of Stoli!”?

How many more billions of dollars must we waste, how many more lives must we ruin, how many more countries must we decimate before we re-learn prohibition’s lesson?/


Have I Got a Revenue Enhancement for You!

I’ve been pondering the arguments about how to reduce the national debt, and I have a proposal. Dump the drug war.

The fiscal consequences of our current policies are staggering. While other estimates have been as high as 88 billion, an economics professor at Harvard reported in 2005 that replacing marijuana prohibition with a system of taxation and regulation similar to that used for alcohol would produce combined savings and tax revenues between $10 and $14 billion per year.  Even that’s not chump change. (Estimates from a variety of sources are that marijuana prohibition costs U.S. taxpayers nearly $42 billion dollars a year in criminal justice costs and lost tax revenues alone. This is just from marijuana prohibition—not efforts to control harder drugs.) As of August 19th of this year, state and federal governments together had spent $25, 969,752,344 on an effort that has–as the AP recently reported–has failed to meet any of its goals. The federal government alone spends approximately 500 dollars a second on drug prohibition.

Then there are the opportunity costs. Indiana used to have a robust hemp industry. Hemp is an enormously versatile and useful product that cannot be smoked or used as a recreational drug, but our indiscriminate policies outlaw its growth. They also prohibit use of marijuana to alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy. And the drug war diverts desperately needed dollars from serious crime-control efforts and other government programs.Estimates are that the money spent annually on the drug war would pay for a million additional teachers.

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is an organization formed by law enforcement professionals–current and former police officers, sheriffs, prosecutors and judges. These are people who have seen the drug war up close and ugly, and their message is simple: it has been a costly disaster. Just as with America’s prior experiment with alcohol prohibition, the result has been policies that have created a set of perverse incentives that have made drug dealing so profitable that they outweigh the prospects of being caught. Last year the FBI reported that there is a drug arrest every 19 seconds in the US, and 82% of those were for simple possession. That isn’t surprising, since government estimates are that 47% of Americans over the age of 12 admit to using illegal drugs–mostly marijuana, which is no more harmful than those legal drugs, tobacco and alcohol.

There is a copious academic literature documenting the failure of American drug prohibition–and wide consensus on the magnitude of its social and human costs. There is also wide recognition that politicians of both parties are loathe to act on the basis of evidence when that evidence contradicts their ideology or (heaven forbid) threatens their electability by causing them to be seen as insufficiently concerned about law and order. On the other hand,  the country’s current fiscal crisis may finally provide a rationale for doing what most students of the issue have long advocated: discard a policy that has never worked. Decriminalize, tax and regulate marijuana, and focus on treatment and prevention for those with genuine addictions. (Ironically, federal law does not distinguish between use and abuse: it simply declares that any use of a substance that has been declared illegal is a crime, no matter how sporadic or casual the use. This “zero tolerance policy” has cost us a fortune–on average, it costs $25,251 to incarcerate a federal prisoner for one year.) Surely, even the most rabidly anti-tax Republicans would not object to taxing another “sin.”

Over the past 30+ years, we have ignored the numerous books, scholarly studies and organizations advocating the repeal of drug prohibition. Perhaps the current focus on national financial issues can help us achieve both savings and sanity.