by Kristina Vakhman
In 1971, President Richard Nixon waged a “war on drugs” in an effort to curtail drug use among American youth. Since then, the United States has resorted to prohibition, believing that aggressive drug bans will reduce and prevent drug-related crime, addiction, incarceration, death and disease. Yet, the opposite has occurred.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 46.3 percent of inmates are currently imprisoned because of drug offenses. The National Institute on Drug Abuse approximates that more than 50,000 individuals died from drug overdoses in 2015 alone, and states that diseases such as hepatitis and HIV continue to rage, spreading through unhygienic methods like unsterilized needles.
Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told Scott Pelley on CBS’s “60 Minutes” that the United States’ war on drugs led to “failed policies and failed practices.” Considering the costly results of these efforts, the federal government should look for an alternative approach in combatting drug use.
That alternative is the decriminalization and legalization of all illicit drugs. This may seem like a disastrous choice. However, in Portugal, it has worked.
In 2001, Portugal’s government decriminalized and legalized all drugs, no matter the classification, in response to a growing heroin problem. Instead of a being criminally charged, those caught with less than a 10-day supply of hard drugs are taken before a special court of legal experts, psychologists and social workers. In the place of incarceration, a small fine or community service, as well as rehabilitation and treatment is provided.
Today, Portugal has one of the lowest drug-usage rates in all of Europe. The British Journal of Criminology found a significant reduction in the imprisonment of alleged drug dealers, from 14,000 in 2000 to 5,000 in 2010, as well as a decrease in the imprisonment of addicts, which fell from 41 percent in 1999 to 21 percent in 2008.
The Washington Post reported that “there are three drug overdose deaths for every 1,000,000 citizens” in Portugal; as a comparison, 44.6 per million die in the United Kingdom. Drug-related diseases, like HIV, have decreased, “while the dramatic rise in use feared by some has failed to materialize,” as stated by the Transform Drug Policy Institute.
By focusing on treatment rather than punishment, Portugal has given its citizens the opportunity to rehabilitate and contribute as functioning members of society. Consequently, the demand for drugs falls as the number of users declines.
In the U.S., certain states are moving towards reformation instead of incarceration. The New York Times reported Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to combat the wild opioid epidemic in New York City, where $38 million a year would go to programs including “expanded methadone and buprenorphine treatment for addicts” and “a focus at city hospitals on dealing with addiction and overdoses.”
That is what the U.S. needs. The current system is a complete failure; the concept of the war on drugs is ridiculously ineffective. It’s time to look for an alternative model, and Portugal has proven that its model works.