Portugal’s Experiment with Drug Decriminalisation

In 2001, drug use was decriminalised in Portugal, meaning that the country had, in effect, the most lenient drug laws in the world.  What has been the effect of this move?  Martin Robbins considers the evidence.

His conclusion is that the policy hasn’t been the unmitigated success that he – and the Cato institute (warning: bigger-than-the-moon 4Mb .pdf file) – would like to have hoped.

 As you would expect from a Libertarian organisation, the Cato report is eager to present the case that the decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal has been a complete success story, and I’ll be honest, they have a good case.  […] The problem with Greenwald’s Cato report is that his analysis of the facts starts to get rather muddled.  [I]f you cherry-pick the right start years and end years for an age-group, you can get almost any result you want.  […] In short, while the liberal side of me really wants to believe the Cato report, I’m not convinced.

On the other hand, neither has it been a failure, and there’s reason to think that the reforms have been at least moderately – and possibly significantly –  for the better.

[R]ight-wing groups predicted disaster when the laws were liberalised, and this simply did not happen. Drug use in many categories decreased, and while it increased in some areas (notably cannabis), these increases were far too small to offset the overall trend, which has been downwards. Heroin was a major problem, along with the transmission of HIV through dirty needles, but the rates of both heroin use and HIV infection in drug users have decreased.

Nor has it happened in other countries that have taken steps towards liberalising drugs laws. It’s time for this myth to die a death, and for the right-wing to find better arguments.

[Moreover,] there has been a great surge of Portuguese people seeking treatment for drug-related problems. This may have put a strain on social and health services, but with adequate funding clearly this is a positive effect that would be good to replicate elsewhere.

I think I’ve made clear elsewhere on this blog (oooh – and here, as well) what I think of the current state of drug laws in the UK and most of the rest of the world.  If the experience of Portugal is any guide, I take that as evidence that I’m on the right lines.  Prohibition plainly doesn’t work.  People who think that it does ought not to be allowed to walk around the house without a helmet.  But I think also that it’s about time that governments at least began to consider the possibility that there might be other ways to solve this enduring problem that are better – and that decriminalisation is worth at least a serious look.  The very worst that can happen under decriminalisation is that things stay as bad as they are.

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