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Drugs are a global problem. Historically this issue has been addressed by the prohibition of drugs, from cannabis to heroin, cocaine, and so on.  Prohibition is used in most countries, how strictly that is enforced varies.  Many countries have decriminalized drugs on some level, mostly the use of cannabis for recreational or medical use. However, there are more harmful drugs to consider in this debate.

The number of drug induced deaths are staggering in some parts of the world, and we can no longer rely on prohibition as the only answer.  Portugal has led the charge on reforming the laws on all drugs and the overall approach to combating their drug problem, by decriminalizing all drugs in 2001.  The focus has turned away from viewing drugs as a criminal concern, and instead treating it as a public health concern.  The lower numbers of deaths related to drugs are a result to this new approach as illustrated below.

Today in Portugal if you are found with possession of drugs, instead of incarceration you will likely receive a citation, in addition you will have your case reviewed by a panel of legal advisers, social workers and physiologist  to determine the best treatment.  The approach is to rehabilitate, not punish or incarcerate.

The question is, how has this worked? Based on the numbers, this new approach has been met with great success. A paper published by by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, 5 years after instituting a decriminalization regime supports this. They have shown decreased drug use among teens, decreased HIV cases related to intravenous drugs, while the number of individuals seeking treatment as nearly doubled.  The removal of the criminality of drug use, has brought the underground world to the surface, unafraid of legal repercussions and thus seeking help.

According to the Cato paper new HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003. There have also been a decline in deaths related to heroin and other similar substances.  For example, in 2000, the number of deaths from opiates (including heroin) was 281. That number has decreased steadily since decriminalization, to 133 in 2006.  That is more than a 50% reduction.  In 1999, prior to decriminalization the total drug related deaths was near 400, in 2006 it was down to 290, and even more impressive based on the 2017 findings as illustrated in the above graph, there were a mere 60(6 per million, population approx. 10 million).  These are just a few statistics mentioned in the Cato paper,  while there are many more you can clearly see the realized benefit.  Over the past 16 years, Portugal has continued to see positive results. While this is not an end all solution, statistically it has proven to be a step in the right direction.

Globally we must come together to address this, we can learn from the efforts Portugal has made. The war against drugs is not against the users, it is against the dealers and the traffickers. Whatever the solution, incarcerated addicts are just that, and when released they will likely still be addicts, now with a criminal record, and so the cycle continues. With the focus on rehabilitation, be it through decriminalization or other means, the traffickers and dealers will lose their customers, then and only then will we get ahead of this war.

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  1. Very informative. With the epidemic proportion of opiate induced deaths in this country (USA) we should take notice and implement Portugal’s efforts in this regard.

    1. Author

      I could not agree more! I think for the US, they will need complete reformation of the justice system. With the privatisation of the prison systems this would be tough to pass. It’s time to put the people above the profit!

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