Last week, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, an international organization consisting of high level current and former heads of state and policy experts, released a report suggesting world governments give up the war on drugs and consider more rational harm-reduction policies, including removing all criminal penalties for the possession and use of marijuana. The Commission, which included former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, among many others, urged leaders to consider alternatives to incarceration for drug use to shift their focus toward treatment of drug abusers, rather than punishment and interdiction for recreational users.
"These prominent world leaders recognize an undeniable reality. The use of marijuana, which is objectively less harmful than alcohol, is widespread and will never be eliminated,” said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. “They acknowledge that there are only two choices moving forward. We can maintain marijuana's status as a wholly illegal substance and steer billions of dollars toward drug cartels and other criminal actors. Or, we can encourage nations to make the adult use of marijuana legal and have it sold in regulated stores by legitimate, taxpaying business people. At long last, we have world leaders embracing the more rational choice and advocating for legal, regulated markets for marijuana. We praise these world leaders for their willingness to advocate for this sensible approach to marijuana policy."
This study comes as Portugal enjoys the tenth year of its experiment with decriminalizing all drugs. Since making the bold policy move in 2001, Portugal has seen crime, use rates, addiction rates, overdose deaths, and blood-borne disease all decrease significantly. The study released last week suggests that a similar model could be adopted successfully elsewhere. It also stresses the damage that prohibition policies do to society, including massive government expenditure, enrichment of criminal organizations, and interference with treatment and prevention of diseases like HIV/AIDS.
Today, reports issued by several Senate subcommittees stated that America's massive spending to fight the drug war in Latin America has not stopped narcotics from entering the U.S., nor has it affected use rates.
So what exactly is the justification for this continued insanity?
UPDATE: The Marijuana Policy Project's Robert Capecchi talks about the Global Commision on Drug Policy report on FOX9 in the Twin Cities.
The Obama administration’s official position on the movement to decriminalize drug use in Latin America is to take a “wait-and-see attitude.” However, San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne was willing to share his thoughts with the Associated Press:
"Now they will go [to Mexico] because they can get drugs. For a country that has experienced thousands of deaths from warring drug cartels for many years, it defies logic why they would pass a law that will clearly encourage drug use."
His quote illustrates one of the most baffling positions held by drug prohibitionists … that sending people to treatment instead of jail encourages drug use.
The logic Lansdowne can’t see is that drug use is not a criminal justice problem; it’s a public health problem. And when viewed in that light, it’s understandable why he got it wrong -- Lansdowne isn’t a doctor; he's a cop.
The impetus behind Mexico, Argentina, Switzerland, and Portugal (likely to be joined soon by Brazil and Ecuador) changing their drug laws is a decision to focus on treating addiction rather than punishing it. In doing so, they hope to free up law enforcement resources that are better spent fighting violent criminals (like the drug cartels in Mexico). Portugal, which changed its policy in 2001, has had great success -- and without becoming a destination for drug tourism.
Last Friday I had the opportunity to meet Glenn Greenwald, the best-selling author and Salon contributor who was presenting his report – funded by the Cato Institute – on Portugal's experience decriminalizing personal possession of drugs over the past eight years.
Few, even in the drug policy world, have paid much attention to Portugal's remarkable but sensible 2001 decision to remove drug use and possession from the criminal realm and address it solely as a public health issue.
The details of Portugal's system are worth checking out, but basically Portugal, after careful, empirical study, concluded that criminalizing drug use was creating two barriers to introducing treatment to those who might need it. First, it diverted funds that ought to go to drug treatment to ineffective law enforcement efforts. Second, the threat of arrest naturally caused those who might seek treatment to avoid, rather than seek out help from government institutions.
Under the current system, those caught possessing a personal amount of drugs, including marijuana, are cited by police and required to appear before a three-person panel made up of legal and healthcare professionals within 72 hours. The panel then conducts an informal interview with the person to determine what, if any, treatment might be necessary.
Greenwald was careful to note that the policy change was not an ideological decision, nor was it seen by Portuguese officials as some sort of social experiment. Rather, it was viewed as a necessary fix to alarming increases in drug abuse in the late '90s.
The result, according to Greenwald's analysis of the data and countless interviews with Portuguese officials, law enforcement and clients, has been a hands-down success. Despite some initial fears, drug use and drug-related crime have not increased. In many important categories and demographics, 15- to 19-year-olds for example, drug use rates have actually decreased.
And, nearly eight years later, there's little enthusiasm at all, even among conservatives and law enforcement leadership, to go back to criminalizing personal drug use and possession.
Greenwald argues that there's no reason to think that there's anything about the conservative, largely Catholic country that would make its success with decriminalization unique. He also suggested that, in general, empirical evidence supporting reform might be far more persuasive for advocates than ideological arguments about personal freedom or limiting government intrusion in adults' private lives.
I agree with Greenwald, and the data supporting his conclusions about Portugal's success with decriminalization are compelling and undeniable. But some comments made by Dr. Peter Reuter, the University of Maryland criminology professor who played devil's advocate at Greenwald's presentation, served as a reminder that there's still an important ideological component to the argument for sensible marijuana policy reform.
Reuter agreed that the data show decriminalization clearly hasn't exacerbated the country's drug problem. But he said he was less convinced that it proves decriminalization has actually caused decreases in drug use and abuse, pointing out that drug use rates in certain categories, notably marijuana, have decreased in many countries in the past several years.
Reuter said he believes popular culture has a far greater influence over drug use rates than drug policies themselves, a belief supported by a 2008 World Health Organization comparative study of 17 countries' drug use rates and drug policies.
It also reminds me a little of the Bush drug czar office's flimsy claims that arresting millions and lying to children about the dangers of marijuana were to thank for small decreases in youth marijuana use in recent years. We've always been very careful to avoid jumping to conclusions about causality and have been vigilant in calling our opponents out when they get carried away, as they often do.
So, if the best we can say is that, despite the unsubstantiated fears of prohibitionists, decriminalizing marijuana doesn't increase marijuana use rates or marijuana related-crime, then we're still left with an ideological debate: Either you believe that marijuana is inherently evil and that stigmatizing its use by making users criminals is worthwhile despite being ineffective, or you believe our marijuana policies should be measured by their effectiveness and not by arbitrary standards of morality.
Either way, I think we win.