By Peter McKnight, Vancouver Sun columnist
With Mexico being increasingly rapidly and increasing visibly crushed by its war on drugs, some politicians in Mexico and the United States have dared to suggest that decriminalization is the answer.
According to these politicians, decriminalization would allow governments to switch their focus from supply reduction to demand reduction, and to redirect funds away from law enforcement and toward treatment. The end result, they argue, would be a reduction in the harms caused by substance use.
Advocates of criminalization suggest the opposite would occur. Decriminalization would send the message that drug use is acceptable, they argue, thereby leading to an increase in use and drug-related harms.
The trouble with these arguments, which we've heard a million times, is that they take place in an empirical vacuum. Given the lack of empirical evidence, we're left to speculate about the effects of decriminalization and, since it might lead to greater harm, many people are persuaded that it's best to leave bad enough alone.
The trouble with this is that empirical evidence does exist. Although it seems to be the world's best-kept secret, Portugal formally decriminalized possession of all illicit drugs in 2001. And its experiment has provided us with a wealth of empirical evidence about the positive effects of decriminalization.
According to American constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald, who produced a report on Portugal's drug policy for the Washington-based Cato Institute, decriminalization has led to a reduction in drug-related pathologies -- precisely what advocates predicted -- and a reduction in drug use -- precisely the opposite of what opponents feared.
While experiencing severe drug problems in the 1990s, Portugal formed the Commission for a National Drug Strategy, which issued in 1998 a report stressing that criminalization drove resources away from treatment and deterred people from seeking help for addiction. Consequently, the commission recommended decriminalization to reduce both the use and abuse of illicit drugs.
In 2000, the federal government's council of ministers issued a policy consistent with the report, and on July 1, 2001, a new law came into effect decriminalizing personal use possession of all narcotic and psychotropic drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Trafficking remains a criminal offence.
Possession is now considered an "administrative" offence, meaning that police can issue citations to, but not arrest, those caught with drugs. Individuals issued a citation appear before three-person commissions that can order a variety of sanctions, including fines or treatments orders, though in the vast majority of cases -- 83 per cent -- the commissions have suspended proceedings.
To see the effect of this policy, Greenwald first compares statistics from pre- and post-decriminalization Portugal, and concludes that "in almost every category of drug, and for drug usage overall, the lifetime prevalence rates in the pre-decriminalization era of the 1990s were higher than the post-decriminalization rates."
This reduction in lifetime prevalence rates -- a measure of the percentage of people who have used a drug at least once in their lives -- was observed across many age categories, including the critical 15-19 age group, the years during which most people first try drugs.
Fears that decriminalization leads to increased drug use therefore appear to be unfounded, at least in Portugal. ButUniversity of Maryland criminologist Peter Reuter, while admitting that "drug decriminalization did reach its primary goal in Portugal" suggested that Portuguese decriminalization occurred during a time of global reduction in marijuana use.
So it's important to compare not just usage rates in Portugal over time, but to compare the Portuguese experience with that of other states. Greenwald did just that, and post-decriminalization Portugal appears to be a model for the European Union.
Between 2001 and 2005, Portugal enjoyed the lowest lifetime prevalence rate for marijuana, the most popular illicit drug in the EU, with many states' rates double or triple that of Portugal. Similarly, for cocaine, the second most popular drug: Portugal's lifetime prevalence rate was lower than all but five EU states, and many states' rates were again double, triple, or quadruple that of Portugal's.
In the critical high school student age group, Portugal's lifetime prevalence rate for cocaine is just 1.6 per cent, compared to four per cent across Europe, which suggests that Portugal will continue to experience fewer problems far into the future. Similar results were also observed for other problematic drugs, including heroin and amphetamines.
Drug use rates in Portugal are now also far lower than those of most non-EU states, including Canada and especially the U.S., whose cocaine and cannabis rates are so high -- the highest in the world, despite its raging drug war -- that it is considered a statistical outlier.
So much for the primary argument against decriminalization -- that it will lead to increased use. But what of the primary argument in favour of decriminalization -- that it will reduce drug-related pathologies?
Greenwald notes that decriminalization resulted in increased funding for treatment programs, resulting in increased detoxification beds, therapeutic communities and halfway houses. Substance users also showed a renewed willingness to avail themselves of such programs, with the number of people in drug substitution programs increasing 147 per cent, from 6,040 to 14,877, between 1999 and 2003.
One would expect this to have a noticeable effect on morbidity and mortality, and so it has. While Portugal had the highest rate of HIV among injecting drug users in the EU in 1999, the number of new cases has declined substantially every year since 2001. A modest decrease in hepatitis B and C infections has also been observed.
As for mortality, Portugal experienced an increase in acute drug-related deaths every year between 1989 and 1999, with nearly 400 people dying that year. Since decriminalization, that trend has been reversed, with 290 dying from such causes in 2006. Policy-makers are united in their belief that these trends are the result of earlier intervention and better treatment made possible by decriminalization.
Similarly, now that the bogeyman of decriminalization has been slain, Portuguese politicians of all political persuasions are almost unanimous in their support of it. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for politicians of other countries, particularly those countries that most need to listen to Lisbon.
Greenwald notes that the U.S. Office of National Drug Policy -- the drug czar -- has been uncharacteristically silent about the Portuguese experience, which isn't really surprising since drug warriors need a drug war to justify their existence.
But it is a hopeful sign that some courageous American politicians have suggested the U.S. needs to thoroughly rethink its approach toward illicit drugs.
The same can't be said for Canada, which is about the only remaining western country in favour of increasing criminalization.
Now that the evidence in favour of decriminalization is in, politicians should no longer be permitted to corral support for criminalization by stirring up public fear of a bogeyman that doesn't exist.
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org
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