How Portugal Is Winning The War On Drugs

How Portugal Is Winning The War On Drugs

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You’ve probably never heard the name Harry Anslinger, but he’s actually one of the most important figures in American history. Back in 1930, just as Prohibition was ending, Anslinger became the country’s first Commissioner of Narcotics. He criminalized marijuana and single-handedly ruined the life of jazz legend Billie Holiday by getting by constantly tracking her and eventually limiting her ability to perform in public. His policies are still in effect today.

Anslinger was a notorious racist. “The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races,” Anslinger said. “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” He used the n-word so many times in official reports that his senator asked him to step down.

Journalist Johann Hari writes extensively about Anslinger in his book Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, a book in which the author argues convincingly for drug decriminalization.

He mentions the case of Portugal, which decriminalized drugs in 2001. Since then, drug use in the country has actually gone down substantially, particularly among adolescents. Injected drug use has fallen 50 percent overall.

So why does the United States still adhere to a strict, counterintuitive drug policy? The trouble is that the drug problem isn’t one that American leaders seem interested in solving.

The US spends an estimated $51 billion a year to fight the war on drugs, and last year 1.5 million people were arrested on non-violent drug charges. (That’s more than the entire city of Phoenix.) Violent crime is half what it was twenty-five years ago, but there are nearly twice as many Americans in prison now.

Unfortunately, prison is actually the worst place for people with addiction problems. Isolation, loneliness and despair are some of the many reasons people become addicted to drugs. Putting them in prison amplifies those tendencies, making a bad problem significantly worse.

Back in the 1970s, a Canadian researcher named Bruce Alexander looked at those experiments where caged lab rats got addicted to heroin-laced water. He realized that when kept in solitude, the rodents had literally nothing else to do besides become addicted. He tried the same experiment, giving rats the option to drink either pure water or water laced with heroin, but he put lots of rats together and constructed Rat Park, where they had lots of social and exploring options and plenty of exercise. The rats weren’t interested in the heroin at all.

A 2006 ad from the non-profit Common Sense For Drug Policy. (click to enlarge)

According to the Archives of General Psychiatry, up to 20 percent of U.S. soldiers were addicted to heroin during the Vietnam War. One Time magazine story said heroin was “as common as chewing gum.” But when the soldiers came home, they mostly quit right away. Hardly any of them had rehab, either. And people who take drugs for pain relief almost never become addicts. Even those who take heavy pain killers for long periods of time just quit when their prescriptions run out. How can this be possible, if drugs hijack your brain?

Let’s go back to Portugal, where injecting drug use has fallen by 50 percent since decriminalization.

Possession charges are now what are known as “administrative offenses.”

“A person found in possession of personal use amounts of any drug in Portugal is no longer arrested, but rather ordered to appear before a local “dissuasion commission” comprised of one official from the legal arena and two from the health or social service arenas who determine whether and to what extent the person is addicted to drugs. The commission can refer that person to a voluntary treatment program, pay a fine or impose other administrative sanctions.”

The number of overdoses in Portugal has dropped eight percent between 2001 and 2012. The number of HIV cases among drug users has also fallen dramatically, from 1,575 new cases in 2000 to just 78 new cases in 2013.

Portugal has also invested in harm reduction, including sterile syringes and methadone for recovering heroin addicts. Decriminalization helps, but so do the country’s support networks. “The decriminalization of drug use should be understood as only one element of a larger policy change that… might be best described as a public health policy founded on values such as humanism, pragmatism and participation.”

“There is no doubt that the phenomenon of addiction is in decline in Portugal,” says drug czar Dr. João Goulão. “The biggest effect has been to allow the stigma of drug addiction to fall, to let people speak clearly and to pursue professional help without fear.”

(featured image via D-Stanley/Flickr)

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