Portugal's drug decriminalization 'bizarrely underappreciated': Greenwald
Rachel Oswald
Published: Monday April 6, 2009

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Champions of harsh drug criminalization laws as the best solution to curbing drug use will be chagrined to find that Portugal’s eight year history of decriminalization has led to lower drug usage rates.

According to a new report entitled, “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies,” while drug use across the European Union has risen steadily since 2000, Portugal, which has the most liberal drug laws of any country, has actually seen its prevalence rates decrease in various age groups since it decriminalized all drugs in 2001. Prevalence rates measure how many people have consumed drugs over the course of their lifetime.

“I think it’s bizarrely underappreciated what’s been done in Portugal,” said Salon writer Glenn Greenwald, who authored the report. Greenwald, who speaks fluent Portuguese, traveled to Portugal in 2008 to study the affects of drug decriminalization in the country.

Because drugs were not legalized outright in Portugal, violations of laws prohibiting drug possession for personal usage are now merely treated as administrative offenses and carry with them no criminal charges. Drug trafficking, however, continues to be prosecuted as a criminal offense in the country.

Compared to the low to moderate levels of drug use in Portugal since decriminalization went into effect, the majority of EU states have drug use rates that are double and triple that of Portugal today, according to the report.

Greenwald, who presented his findings at a Friday event at the Cato Institute, which sponsored the writing of the report, noted that the United Kingdom and Estonia, EU nations with some of the harshest criminalization laws, also have the highest cocaine usage rates in the EU.

“None of the fears promulgated by opponents of Portuguese decriminalization has come to fruition, whereas many of the benefits predicted by drug policymakers from instituting a decriminalization regime have been realized," writes Greenwald in the report. "While drug addiction, usage, and associated pathologies continue to skyrocket in many EU states, those problems—in virtually every relevant category—have been either contained or measurably improved within Portugal since 2001.”

Greenwald said the strongest evidence in Portugal that supports drug decriminalization is the declining usage of drugs in the crucial 15-19 age group.

In every single drug category, with the exception of the new drugs that have come into popular usage since 2001, like ketamine and GHB, teen drug use has declined. The biggest drug category declines were seen in marijuana, which saw teen drug use slip from just over 10 percent in 2001 to 6 percent in 2006.

“Drug policymakers are ecstatic about this,” Greenwald said.

Since decriminalization took effect in Portugal, deaths as a result of drug usage have declined significantly. Opiate-related deaths experienced the biggest drop, falling from about 275 deaths in 2000 to about 125 in 2006, according to information provided in the report from the Portugal National Institute of Legal Medicine.

The Portugal report, which also tracked drug usage rates outside of the European Union (the region of the world that has gone the farthest in decriminalizing drug usage), found that “by and large usage rates for each category of drugs continue to be lower in the EU than in non-EU states with a far more criminalized approach to drug usage.”

Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, said, “For a very long time all of the academics, who studied drug policy, had to acknowledge one reality -- that the drug policy of the United States is the drug policy of the world.”

That premise, however, is now changing.

As evidence of this, Lynch pointed to a number of news bulletins calling for drug reform in recent months: “Canadian government tries anew to decriminalize marijuana”, “Argentine president calls for decriminalization of drug use”, “Mass. voters OK decriminalization of marijuana”, ” Obama administration to stop raids on medical marijuana dispensers” and most recently, ” Webb, Specter introduce bill to overhaul America’s criminal justice system.”

Advocates of drug decriminalization in the United States, should focus not on ideological or moral arguments in making their case, but rather, empirical evidence that shows decriminalization reduces drug usage, said Greenwald.

Greenwald said supporters of decriminalization in the U.S. have an “ideal moment” to talk about it as the political mood regarding decriminalization is now shifting in favor of reform.

According to Greenwald, much of the discussion on why drugs should not be decriminalized (the primary argument being that it will lead to higher drug usage and higher assorted drug-related problems) has been speculative. He said it was up to drug reformers to refocus the drug debate away from moral and civil liberties arguments “so that it ends up being an entirely empirical and pragmatic issue.”

Because there has been little debate on empirical grounds, which are verifiable and provable, on why drugs should stay criminalized, the “extremely unexamined” assumption that decriminalization would result in a massive increase of drug usage has become widespread and generally accepted, Greenwald said.

But with the decriminalization of drugs in Portugal, drug reformers can now point to empirical evidence that demonstrates that decriminalization has positive affects.

As Greenwald writes in the report, “By freeing its citizens from the fear of prosecution and imprisonment for drug usage, Portugal has dramatically improved its ability to encourage drug addicts to avail themselves of treatment. The resources that were previously devoted to prosecuting and imprisoning drug addicts are now available to provide treatment programs to addicts.”

“Those developments, along with Portugal’s shift to a harm-reduction approach, have dramatically improved drug-related social ills, including drug-caused mortalities and drug-related disease transmission,” the report continues. “Ideally, treatment programs would be strictly voluntary, but Portugal’s program is certainly preferable to criminalization.”

Peter Reuter, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland, who supports the continued criminalization of drugs, provided a skeptical critique of Greenwald’s report at Friday’s event, though he did admit that “I think it is fair to say that decriminalization in Portugal…has indeed achieved its central goals.”

While non-violent drug users are no longer dealt with as criminals in Portugal, Reuter speculated that because Portuguese police no longer have to put as much effort into making a criminal arrest against drug users, they are now more likely to issue many more administrative citations for drug use, which he said served to increase, rather than decrease, the intrusion of government into the lives of private citizens.

He added, that the higher rates of drug users seeking government treatment was more likely due to the aging of Western Europe’s heroin-using population. According to Reuter, the large bulk of the population of heroin dependents first began using in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s and so would be much older today and more likely to seek out medical help.

“Much of what is recorded here, I think, is consistent with what I see happening in many other Western countries,” said Reuter of the number of drug users in Portugal seeking treatment.

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