Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Busting The Biggest Myth Of All—Part 2

In last week’s column I discussed the myth that decriminalization leads to increased drug use. People who believe in this myth have no basis for their prediction. It’s just common sense. But, as I also pointed out, some real, solid evidence does in fact exist that would enable us to make a more informed prediction. For the past 8 years, all recreational drugs have been decriminalized in Portugal. Granted, Portugal is not the U.S., but I think what’s been going on there is still pretty relevant when it comes to making a prediction of what would happen here. The Portuguese are, after all, a pretty conservative and religious people. It might not be a perfect comparison, but better than just going on a hunch.

So, what’s been happening in Portugal over the past 8 years? Are dogs and cats currenlty cohabiting? Has it been a tragedy of biblical proportions? The simple answer to this complex question is, no. Not a single, observable bad thing has happened. In fact, just the opposite is true. Some really good things have resulted from Portugal’s insanely-tolerant drug policy. Not that that’s relevant to the good ol’ U.S. of A., where we base our drug policy on fear and baseless speculation rather than facts. So even though it’s pointless, let’s see what the results of decriminalization really are, minus the fear and baseless speculation.

A study of the drug situation in Portugal was recently completed by the CATO Institute, a non-profit public policy research foundation. They’ve posted a video on their web site that discusses the history of decriminalization in Portugal and the results of their study. So you don’t have to view the entire video, I’ve summarized the main points here. But please do check the video out, so you’re not basing your opinion entirely on my interpretation of it.

Drugs were not decriminalized in Portugal for socially progressive or libertarian reasons. The drug problem there was out of control in the 1990s as their criminalization efforts intensified. They decided to try decriminalization out of desperation, because what they had been doing was not working. So they formed an apolitical commission in 1998 made up of scientists and medical professionals to examine their drug policy and figure out how to fix it. The commission decided that decriminalization was the best way for the government to get the drug problem under control. Legalization was not an option because of international treaties. Not surprisingly, they heard the same arguments against this “experiment” as we hear in this country—that drug use would go up, that they would become a haven for drug tourists, etc. All those dire predictions turned out to be false. Now it’s pretty unanimous among the citizens as well as the government that decriminalization is a success, and there is no longer a movement to return to prohibition.

So what exactly is the current law in Portugal? Personal use or possession of small amounts (enough for 10 days usage) of any recreational drug is still prohibited by law, but is not a criminal offense. If you are caught, you will not be tried, convicted, sent to jail or receive a criminal record. (This is not at all like the situation in The Netherlands, where the existing laws are not enforced under certain circumstances.) Drug trafficking and selling to minors is still illegal. If you are cited for possession, you are given the opportunity for treatment, but treatment is optional. A recommendation is made at an informal hearing, but it is up to the individual what to do. Police still do issue citations for possession, even more now than before. That’s because now there’s a possibility it could help the individual, whereas imprisonment never really did anyone any good.

There are basically two reasons the Portuguese believe decriminalization is working: (1) If using/abusing drugs makes you a criminal, you’re not going to go to the government for help. Decriminalization removes the fear of government and the barrier to help. More people are now in treatment and government addiction programs are now far more effective. (2) Imprisoning nonviolent offenders costs lots of money (Portugal is a relatively poor country) without helping anyone. Freeing up much of that money allows the creation of education and treatment opportunities not previously possible.

Sounds good, right? But what about some hard data? Prevalence rates of the use of all drugs in adolescents and post-adolescents decreased between 2001 and 2006, and for some drugs the decrease was dramatic. There is no evidence whatsoever that drug use has increased in the dramatic way decriminalization opponents predicted. Portugal now has the lowest marijuana usage rate across all age groups (age 15-64) among EU nations. It has the sixth lowest cocaine usage rate across all age groups. That alone may not sound so great, but the EU nations with the most severe penalties have cocaine usage rates 5-6 time higher than Portugal. Drug deaths in Portugal have also dropped dramatically from their all-time high in the 1990s. And Portugal has not become a drug tourist destination.

Whether or not these decreases are just a reflection of world-wide trends, it still remains true that drug use did not dramatically increase with decriminalization. Just to be clear, this result clearly and unambiguously refutes the dire predictions made by the prohibitionists. This is in spite of the fact that in Europe overall, marijuana and cocaine use are at all time highs. So if decriminalization reduces the intrusiveness of the state and doesn’t favor the arrest of minorities while at the same time not increasing drug use, what’s the problem? Even if there are no major positive consequences of decriminalization, there are at the very least no negative consequences.

So there you have it. Solid evidence that, contrary to the baseless speculation of drug warriors everywhere, decriminalization does not lead to increased drug usage. Regardless of the other pros and cons of decriminalization, this outcome is quite clear. So every time you hear someone in favor of prohibition spouting off about the rampant drug use decriminalization would cause, politely ask them, “What about Portugal?” If they don’t have an answer, then go right ahead and educate them. There’s nothing prohibitionists like more than hearing about facts that show how wrong their uninformed opinions really are.

No comments: