Co-written by David Miranda
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."
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.