by Barry Donegan:
In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs, replacing criminal penalties with civil penalties and court-ordered stints in drug treatment. As The Washington Post‘s Christopher Ingraham points out, supporters of the US War on Drugs have in the past offered up gloomy predictions as to the escalating rates of drug use that would eventually befall Portugal as a result of this policy change. However, new research into drug overdose fatality rates by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addictiondemonstrates that Portugal has not suffered under the policy, but instead features the second-lowest drug overdose fatality rates in the European Union.
Meanwhile, the Transform Drug Policy Foundation notes that young adult past-year and past-month drug use, adult drug use, and HIV diagnoses among drug users have dropped since 2001.
“Among Portuguese adults, there are 3 drug overdose deaths for every 1,000,000 citizens. Comparable numbers in other countries range from 10.2 per million in the Netherlands to 44.6 per million in the UK, all the way up to 126.8 per million in Estonia. The EU average is 17.3 per million,” wrote Christopher Ingraham for The Washington Post.
Opponents of Portugal’s policy have in the past predicted that drug use rates would rise in the European country. Office of National Drug Control Policy deputy director Thomas McLellan said of the move, “If you make any attractive commodity available at lower cost, you will have more users.”
Columbia University Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse founder Joseph Califanoonce argued that “vigorous and intelligent enforcement of criminal law makes drugs harder to get and more expensive” and that any similar effort to decriminalize drugs in the US “will make illegal drugs cheaper, easier to obtain and more acceptable to use.” Califano continued, “The US has some 60 million smokers, up to 20 million alcoholics and alcohol misusers, but only around 6 million illegal drug addicts. If illegal drugs were easier to obtain, this figure would rise.”
Not only have Portugal’s drug use rates dropped and drug fatality rates remained among Europe’s lowest, but the use of unsafe drug alternatives like bath salts and synthetic marijuana has plummeted below use rates in other nations.
Portugal’s national drug coordinator Dr. Joao Goulao, whom Christopher Ingraham credited as the “the architect of the country’s decriminalization policy,” cautioned that “it’s very difficult to identify a causal link between decriminalization by itself and the positive tendencies we have seen.” That said, these new numbers challenge the claims of decriminalization’s opponents, who said that Portugal would fall victim to rising drug use rates as a result of the policy.