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Portugal’s Approach to Drugs Is Saving Lives; Why Aren’t We Copying It?

Posted on Jun 16, 2015

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In 2001, Portugal tackled drug use with what seemed like a radical plan: It decriminalized all drugs—yes, every last one. Now, drug use is down, deaths caused by overdoses are rare, and HIV hardly occurs among drug users anymore.

From The Washington Post:

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.

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.” ... Drug use and drug deaths are complicated phenomena. They have many underlying causes. Portugal’s low death rate can’t be attributable solely to decriminalization. As Dr. Joao Goulao, the architect of the country’s decriminalization policy, has said, “it’s very difficult to identify a causal link between decriminalization by itself and the positive tendencies we have seen.”

Still, it’s very clear that decriminalization hasn’t had the severe consequences that its opponents predicted. As the Transform Drug Policy Institute says in its analysis 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.”

Read more.

—Posted by Natasha Hakimi Zapata


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