Time magazine reports that Europe’s most liberal drug policy has been a huge success. Not, as you might think, those hippie Dutch, but Portugal , where possession of all drugs for personal use was decriminalised in 2001.
A study by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has found that in the five years after decriminalisation, Portugal’s drug problems had improved in every measured way. The man behind the research, Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer, told Time: “Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success.”
Portuguese policy is that possession of small amounts of any drug is not a criminal offence; if you are found possessing it, you can be put before a panel of a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser, who will decide appropriate treatment. You are free to refuse that treatment, and a jail sentence is not an option. Drug trafficking is still illegal and punishable by jail.
I’ll just go through the figures; apologies for the slew of statistics. Drug use among 13- to 15-year-olds fell from 14.1 per cent in 2001 to 10.6 per cent in 2006. Among 16- to 18-year-olds it has dropped from 27.6 per cent to 21.6 per cent. This, incidentally, has come after years of steadily increasing drug use among the young; between 1995 and 2001, use in the 16-to-18 bracket leapt up from 14.1 per cent to its 2001 high. This drop has come against a background of increasing drug use across the rest of the EU.
There has been a mild increase in use among older groups, 19-24 and up, but this is expected due to the rise in use in the young in the 1990s; it’s a “cohort effect”, meaning that young people get older, and take their habits with them.
Further, HIV infections among drug users fell, drug-related deaths fell, there was a decrease in trafficking, and a huge amount of money was saved by offering treatment instead of prison sentences.
I know that correlation does not equal causation, but until 2001, Portugal had some of the worst drug problems in Europe. The turnaround since decriminalisation has been dramatic, and expert opinion attributes it to the change in policy; a study by the World Health Organisation and another published in the British Medical Journal found similar things.
Obviously no-one believes that this is a magic bullet. Drugs will remain harmful, and there will be new, different problems caused by decriminalisation which we will have to deal with. It would have to be introduced carefully and intelligently; Transform Drug Policy Foundation, the think tank and lobby group, has suggested a five-tier decriminalisation policy, rather than dropping all laws. While trafficking and producing drugs remains illegal, it will not stop the horrors facing drug states like Afghanistan and Mexico. But the fact that we cannot make things perfect should not put us off trying to make things better.
I spoke very briefly to the Home Office about this, and they were quick to say that the Portugal experience will not change their policy. A spokesman said: “The government does not believe that decriminalisation is the right approach. Our priorities are clear; we want to reduce drug use, crack down on drug related crime and disorder and help addicts come off drugs for good.”
This is the same statement they issued last month, when Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, the outgoing president of the Royal College of Physicians, became the latest high-profile figure to come out in favour of more liberal drug laws. I don’t think anyone disagrees with the second sentence; reducing drug use and crime are good things. But how best to achieve those good things is an empirical question, which an honest government would attempt to answer with all the tools at their disposal.
The Portugal experience suggests that decriminalisation is exactly the right approach for their stated priorities of reducing drug use and reducing crime. If your approach has been shown, several times, to achieve the opposite of what you intend, it may be time to change that approach.
By Tom Chivers