Brazil’s Latest Outbreak of Drug Gang Violence Highlights the Real Culprit: the War on Drugs

by Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept:

ON JULY 1, 2001, Portugal enacted a law to decriminalize all drugs. Under that law, nobody who is found possessing or using narcotics is arrested in Portugal, nor are they turned into a criminal. Indeed, neither drug use nor possession is considered a crime at all. Instead, those found doing it are sent to speak with a panel of drug counsellors and therapists, where they are offered treatment options.

Seven years after the law was enacted, in 2008, we traveled to Lisbon to study the effects of that law for one of the first comprehensive reports on this policy, the findings of which were published in a report for the Cato Institute. The results were clear and stunning: This radical change in drug laws was a fundamental and undeniable success.

While Portugal throughout the 1990s was (like most Western countries) drowning in drug overdoses along with drug-related violence and diseases, the country rose to the top of the charts in virtually all categories after it stopped prosecuting drug users and treating them like criminals. This stood in stark contrast to countries that continued to follow a harsh criminalization approach: the more they arrested addicts and waged a “war on drugs,” the more their drug problems worsened.

With all the money that had been wasted in Portugal to prosecute and imprison drug users now freed up for treatment programs, and the government viewed with trust rather than fear, previously hopeless addicts transformed into success stories of stability and health, and the government’s anti-drug messages were heeded. The predicted rise in drug usage rates never happened; in some key demographic categories, usage actually declined. As the 2009 study concluded: “The data show that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success.”

“The data show that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success.”

Over the weekend, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, writing from Lisbon, re-visited this data, now even more ample and conclusive than it was back in 2009. His conclusions were even more stark than the Cato report of eight years ago: namely, Portugal has definitively won the argument on how ineffective, irrational, and counterproductive drug prohibition is.

The basis for this conclusion: Portugal’s clear success with decriminalization, compared to the tragic failures of countries, such as the U.S. (and Brazil), which continue to treat addiction as a criminal and moral problem rather than a health problem. Kristof writes:

After more than 15 years, it’s clear which approach worked better. The United States drug policy failed spectacularly, with about as many Americans dying last year of overdoses — around 64,000 — as were killed in the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq Wars combined.

In contrast, Portugal may be winning the war on drugs — by ending it. Today, the Health Ministry estimates that only about 25,000 Portuguese use heroin, down from 100,000 when the policy began.

The number of Portuguese dying from overdoses plunged more than 85 percent before rising a bit in the aftermath of the European economic crisis of recent years. Even so, Portugal’s drug mortality rate is the lowest in Western Europe — one-tenth the rate of Britain or Denmark — and about one-fiftieth the latest number for the U.S.

Kristof succinctly identified one key reason for this success: “It’s incomparably cheaper to treat people than to jail them.” But there are other vital reasons, including the key fact that when it comes to efforts to persuade addicts to obtain counseling, “decriminalization makes all this easier, because people no longer fear arrest.”

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