Fighting drugs is a costly enterprise. And, claim many, soft drugs are usually harmless and should be decriminalized. In 2001 Portugal did exactly that: The country scrapped criminal sentences for drug use. Instead of jail, drug users get treatment — and society benefits.
These days, Portuguese can buy “magic mushrooms” and hashish in a number of specialty shops. Some refer to them as Dutch-style “smart shops,” though they officially trade in herbal substances. But if you know where to find drugs, you can buy them without worrying about going to jail.
In fact, the police won’t even put the drug users on trial. Instead, it offers them specialist medical and psychological treatment. Eleven years ago, Portugal took the drastic step of decriminalizing drug use. Owning and selling drugs is still prohibited, but drug users are now referred to the health-care system, not the courts.
That, say proponents of drug legalization, is a system other countries should adopt as well. In a recent study, Jeffrey Miron, a professor of economics at Harvard University, estimates that the United States government would save $41.3 billion on police, courts and jails if it legalized drugs – and earn another $46.7 billion on drug taxes. “The biggest guaranteed benefit of drug legalization is the reduction in government expenditures, since tax revenues on drugs are harder to predict,” he tells Metro.
Since liberalizing its drug laws, Portugal has made remarkable progress. The share of injection drug users has halved, to 0.5 per cent of the population. Overall drug use is lower than the EU average. In 2011, only 6.6 per cent of Portuguese 15- to 24-year-olds used cannabis, compared to 29.7 per cent in the Czech Republic and 23.9 per cent in Spain. And Portugal’s courts have been freed up to deal with more serious offenses.
“There are significant savings related to the burden on the judicial system, the prison system and the police,” notes Professor Jose Pedro from the Department of Economic Studies at the Bank of Portugal. “On the other hand, the health system now has multi-disciplinary teams of doctors, psychologists, judges and social workers, which is also expensive. But there’s no doubt in my mind that this system is very successful, though expensive.”
But experts like Dr. Carlos Fugas, a psychologist who treats drug addicts in Lisbon, worry about the consequences of the Portuguese drug nirvana. “The herbal drugs people buy in ‘smart shops’, don’t show up in the statistics,” he says. “And there has been an increase in drug users since the recession began.” Adds Dr. Manuel Pinto Coelho, a drug treatment specialist: “When people speed, we don’t change the laws to simply allow speeding. Why do we have to accept drug use?”
Portugal is stuck in a deep recession despite the financial benefits of tolerating drug use. But, argues Miron, legalization still makes sense: “Whether drugs are legal or not impacts the wealth of the people who use them. If drugs are illegal, it pushes the users underground and exposes them to criminality. That affects the whole society, even people who don’t use drugs.”
What Portuguese think of the decriminalization of drugs use
“I’m all for this law of the decriminalization of drugs use in our country. Every citizen has freedom of choice towards their own choices. However they must suffer the penalties of the society in which they live.”
– Catarina Silva, student, 20
“I am in favour of private consumption decriminalization and against the penalty, because every citizen is free to make his own choice. Nobody should be punished for self-inflicted harm.”
- João Ricardo, student, 23
“I agree with the law. However, it seems a bit ridiculous to send all consumers caught with drugs for treatment. Smoking a joint sporadically is not the same thing as injecting heroin every day.”
- Isabel Moreira, IT engineer, 43