The Netherlands’ drug policy is often perceived to be the most liberal in Europe. Not only is that not true in the sense that the Netherlands is getting increasingly regressive; it’s also not true in the sense that there are other European countries with more liberal drug policies. In the Czech Republic, for example, since 2009 possession of small amounts of marihuana and mushrooms, as well as some hard drugs is only a misdemeanour. And in Portugal, possession of all drugs has been decriminalized since 2000.
The Boston Globe has an interesting article on the effects of this policy on Portugal’s public health and crime rate. Here, ten years ago politicians decided to decriminalize personal possession, in order to allow police authorities to focus full-time on distribution and trafficking. The overarching goal was to treat drug use as a public health concern. And it seems to have paid off! There has been a 63 percent increase in Portuguese drug users getting treatment, and a 499 percent increase in amount of drugs seized. Portuguese society has not collapsed because of drug decriminalization; instead, drug addicts, not having to fear going to jail anymore, are getting treatment.
To be clear: this is not a solution I advocate. I’m in favour of a complete legalization of relatively innocent drugs, such as marihuana, hashish, mushrooms, xtc and lsd, and a continuing ban on hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. Legalization allows for regulation, bringing for example the thc level of weed down and getting clean xtc on the market, and making it available strictly to over-18s (I think that should go for alcohol too, by the way). For psychologically more difficult stuff, like shrooms or lsd, I’d advocate some sort of permit, or examination, to prepare people for the experience. But then on hard drugs that are dangerous to the individual and society, I’m still in favour of treating possession, distribution and trafficking as a criminal matter.
But anyway, here’s the article on Portugal’s experiences:
Faced with both a public health crisis and a public relations disaster, Portugal’s elected officials took a bold step. They decided to decriminalize the possession of all illicit drugs — from marijuana to heroin — but continue to impose criminal sanctions on distribution and trafficking. The goal: easing the burden on the nation’s criminal justice system and improving the people’s overall health by treating addiction as an illness, not a crime.
As the sweeping reforms went into effect nine years ago, some in Portugal prepared themselves for the worst. They worried that the country would become a junkie nirvana, that many neighborhoods would soon resemble Casal Ventoso, and that tourists would come to Portugal for one reason only: to get high. “We promise sun, beaches, and any drug you like,” complained one fearful politician at the time.
But nearly a decade later, there’s evidence that Portugal’s great drug experiment not only didn’t blow up in its face; it may have actually worked. More addicts are in treatment. Drug use among youths has declined in recent years. Life in Casal Ventoso, Lisbon’s troubled neighborhood, has improved. And new research, published in the British Journal of Criminology, documents just how much things have changed in Portugal. Coauthors Caitlin Elizabeth Hughes and Alex Stevens report a 63 percent increase in the number of Portuguese drug users in treatment and, shortly after the reforms took hold, a 499 percent increase in the amount of drugs seized — indications, the authors argue, that police officers, freed up from focusing on small-time possession, have been able to target big-time traffickers while drug addicts, no longer in danger of going to prison, have been able to get the help they need.
“Often, there are lot of fears, misconceptions, and mythology around decriminalization and what might be the consequences,” Hughes said. “This reform has shown that it is possible to decriminalize illicit drugs…without necessarily increasingly drug-related harm, without increasing the burden on the criminal justice system, and without increasing drug use.”
The total number of people who have ever used drugs, though, has increased. The article evaluates that as ‘not positive’. I don’t see it as a problem, as long, as said above, it’s the relatively innocent stuff. But for that, you need to regulate.
But the numbers aren’t all positive. According to the latest report by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the number of Portuguese aged 15 to 64 who have ever tried illegal drugs has climbed from 7.8 percent in 2001 to 12 percent in 2007. The percentage of people who have tried cannabis, cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, ecstasy, and LSD all increased in that time frame. Cannabis use, according to the drug report, has gone up from 7.6 to 11.7 percent. Heroin use jumped from 0.7 to 1.1 percent, and cocaine use nearly doubled — from 0.9 to 1.9 percent. In other words, said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, the changes in Portugal have had a somewhat expected outcome: More people are trying drugs.