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What can Portugal’s decriminalisation experience teach us?

Mark Thompson is a Lib-Dem blogger who edits the Mark Reckons blog, which makes a feature of trying to look behind the headlines.   Like the Wardman Wire, Mark Reckons often features longer articles, rather than daily political ping-pong.

drugs society britainOne of the issues that I feel strongly about and have blogged about numerous times before is how the debate surrounding drugs in this country is often very reactionary and not based on evidence. Many politicians are complicit in this as is the media (the press generally and tabloid press in particular). But over the last few years, an advanced Western country has embarked on a wide ranging experiment, the results of which could and should have a marked effect on the debate in other countries including the UK.

Eight years ago, Portugal decreed that the purchase, possession and use of any previously-illegal substance would no longer be considered a criminal offence. The BBC’s Mark Easton has an in-depth article on this here.

An important conclusion that I can see from the results of this experiment is that drug use in Portugal has not risen in the last 8 years. In fact it has fallen, by around 10%. This might seem counter-intuitive but proponents of reform of drug laws have been saying for years that rise and fall in the use of drugs is largely independent of the legislative situation. I have been involved in this debate for quite a long time now and I have found when I try to argue that reform of the drugs laws would not necessarily cause an increase in drug use this is sometimes met with scorn. Now there is solid evidence based on an 8 year long country-wide trial in an advanced country to back this up.

Further still, the statistics suggest that use by teenagers of every type of drug measured has also fallen (see here). This is remarkable as usually when one type of drug use falls, another increases as they are affected by societal trends. In Portugal’s case this seems not to have happened.

Perhaps the most important result of this trial though is how HIV infections and drug deaths have been reduced. The following quote from Mark Easton’s report is by Paula Vale de Andrade who is involved with an organisation who try to help heroin addicts:

When drug use was a crime, people were afraid to engage with the teams. But since decriminalisation, they know the police won’t be involved and they come forward. It has been a great improvement.

This is hardly surprising. Despite all the rhetoric from the UK government about increasing treatment for addicts all their efforts are conducted against the back-drop of the constant risk of arrest and prosecution for both addicted and those who try to help them if they aren’t very careful. The new regime in Portugal takes this fear out of the equation and the obvious result has been that the help can be administered more easily and to much greater effect.

I hope that all the results of this experiment will help the conduct of this vital debate in the UK. Opponents of reform need to look hard at the results from Portugal and ask themselves why they are still defending a discredited approach that maximises harm and does little if anything to reduce drug use.

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Author: Mark Thompson – Website Mark Reckons blog.

Source: Wardman Wire