Before we get into details, a couple of clarifications:
- Yes, this includes the hard stuff, like cocaine and heroin
- It’s decriminalization, not legalization: drug use is still illegal, but it’s treated as a civil matter rather than a criminal one. More like traffic tickets and contracts rather than burglaries and murder.
- Making, trafficking and selling drugs are still criminal acts; the only thing that’s been decriminalized is possession for personal use, which is defined as a 10 day supply.
Now that we know the parameters of the situation, how has Portugal’s social experiment gone so far? For the most part, things have somewhat improved, and definitely nothing bad happened. Before the 2001 law went into effect, Portugal had a pretty bad drug problem, and a really bad problem with HIV caused by drug use, via infected needles. Since then, continued drug use has decreased by a third, drug court cases by two-thirds, the number of addicts has been cut in half, drug-related HIV cases have plummeted, and so have deaths by overdose.
However, the fear in the United States isn’t that re-classifying drug use from a criminal act to a health problem won’t decrease deaths, court cases and health problems. It’s that drug use will go up, because why wouldn’t it? Depending on who you ask, people either aren’t smart enough or restrained enough to not do drugs without the threat of a jail sentence. (Nevermind that half of American prisoners are there for drugs, and that the 40-year War on Drugs has been a trillion dollar failure.)
Well, it turns out that at least the Portugese know to stay away from drugs even if they get to keep their freedom. The above graph shows that definitely more people tried drugs since they’ve been decriminalized: the lifetime prevalence — how many people have ever tried drugs — went up about half as much by 2007, then declined a bit by 2012, but it still stayed above the 2001 figure. But the other numbers show that people only tried drugs while they were newly legal: by 2012, the amount of people that had tried drugs in the past month or the past year had both gone down from before decriminalization. So while experimental drug use went up, regular use went down.
This is probably because people know drugs are bad without any government threats, the same way they know that jumping out of a plane, even though it sounds like fun at first, ends up poorly. Yet, with proper precautions and supervision, thousands of people jump out of planes each year and walk away to live to tell about it.
But if it’s going so well for Portugal, why don’t more countries try decriminalizing personal drug use? Well, a few have:
- Uruguay never criminalized it, and is in the process of opening government-run marijuana shops
- The Czech Republic did the least they could under the UN’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs: small amounts for personal use are only a misdemeanor, subject to a small fine.
- The Netherlands are famous for not enforcing drug laws for ‘soft’ drugs, such as marijuana
- In Argentina, the Supreme Court declared laws against personal drug use as unconstitutional, but this has been largely ignored by the government.
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