Thursday, August 25, 2011

Portugal, America, and Drugs

Due to the current debt crisis in the United States, there are some who argue that the US should decriminalize drugs. That in doing so, it would allow for the government to tax drug user, thus increasing revenue. There is some opposition to this idea, yet one only need to look at Portugal to see that decriminalizing drugs can very well be a positive occurrence.
Prior to the decriminalization of drugs in Portugal, there was a moderate drug policy as “drug use, possession, and acquisition in Portugal were punishable by penalties up to 3 months in prison or a fine for small quantities.” [1] Drug usage among 13-to-15 years olds was 14.1% and 27.6% among 16-to-18 year olds. [2]
However, in 2001 there was a shift in policy due to seeing that treating drug usage as criminal was ineffective. Now, instead of locking up those who used drugs for personal  use,  the goal was to decriminalize personal drug possession and treat those who were drug users. When this was reported in the media there was much apprehension and critics argued that “decriminalizing drug possession would open the country to ‘drug tourists’ and exacerbate Portugal’s drug problem.” [3] The naysayers were  proven wrong as a study done by the Cato Institute proved that the drug decriminalization effort was working. [4]
The decriminalization effort was a success due to the fact that the government began treating drug addiction as what it is, a health problem, not a criminal offense. Drug users who are caught by the authorities “are sent to a tribunal of health professionals, where they are offered the opportunity, but are not compelled, to seek government-provided treatment.” [5] Portugal now has the lowest usage rate for marijuana and one of the lowest for cocaine. While there have been increases in other drug areas, “the increases have been modest — far less than in most other European Union nations, which continue to use a criminalization approach.” [6]
We must keep in mind that Portugal’s radical new drug program was a success for several reasons:
1. Drug addiction was treated as a health problem.
For quite a long time, people have treated substance abuse as a criminal problem, rather than a health one. However, throwing someone in a cage and leaving them to experience horrible withdraw symptoms is not the way to help someone end their drug addiction. Rather, a non-aggressive intervention policy will more than likely aid them in kicking the habit.
2. The programs setup to help substance abusers treated them with respect.
In Western society, drug users are looked down upon and treated with disdain in most circles. Thus, they are less likely to look for help from either religious or secular institutions that disrespect them. By not demonizing substance abusers and treating them with common decency, more drug users worked with the authorities and ended up dealing with their problems.
3. The freedoms of drug users were respected.
By giving drug users the option as to whether or not they wanted to recieve treatment from the state, the freedoms of the users were respected. No one wants to be forced into doing anything and by knowing that if caught, they had the freedom to get treatment or not, users would feel more in control of the situation and this, coupled with the fact that they were not demonized, would more likely increase the chances that they chose to get help.
Without these three main pillars, drug usage in Portugal would still be a problem of major concern.
The United States ought to rethink its position on its war on drugs, not only due to Portugal, but also because of the recent assessment which stated that the war on drugs has failed. [7] If the US were to take the same steps Portugal did, they may see that decriminalizing drugs was one of the best things they ever did.

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