Does Decriminalization Lead to Chaos? Not in Portugal.

Apr 06, 2009

decriminalization, drug czar, Glenn Greenwald, law enforcement, ONDCP, Portugal, science

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.