In the U.S., the war on drugs has failed. While efforts to legalize marijuana are taking hold and we’re seeing great results across the country, we should also look at ways other countries are grappling with the issue and finding success. Take Portugal, for example.
In the 1990s, a whopping one percent of Portugal’s population was addicted to heroin, and overdoses were frequent (approximately 400 a year). With the worst addiction problem in all of Europe, they knew they needed to try something drastically different.
Around 2001 they boldly decriminalized drug use, turning it into a public health, not criminal justice, issue. It’s still illegal to carry or use marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other drugs, but now users receive a small fine and are provided with mandatory counseling and rehab. No jail time. No criminal record.
Since decriminalization, they have the second-lowest drug overdose rate of every European country measured by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Now drug overdoses account for only three out of every one million citizen deaths in Portugal. By comparison, the UK reported 45 overdoses per million population; the Netherlands reported 10 per million.
Even more, overall drug use in Portugal has fallen continuously since 2001, and new HIV cases – often caused by sharing needles — are way down. Portuguese people are even less likely to use synthetic versions of drugs, which, while legal, can be dangerous and even fatal.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., we continue to plod along with an archaic war on drugs that ruins lives and costs a lot of money. Our rising prison population can be directly linked to the imprisonment of non-violent drug offenders, which make up about half of those incarcerated in our federal prison system.
It’s time to take a hard look at the way we treat drug use. One way to do that may be to look outside our own borders and study the successes of other countries and cultures who have dealt with this issue head-on.