Portugal’s drug decriminalization ‘bizarrely underappreciated’: Greenwald

Posted: April 16th, 2009 by Militant Libertarian

by Rachel Oswald

Champions of harsh drug criminalization laws as the best solution to curbing drug use will be chagrined to find that Portugal’s eight year history of decriminalization has led to lower drug usage rates.

According to a new report entitled, “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies,” while drug use across the European Union has risen steadily since 2000, Portugal, which has the most liberal drug laws of any country, has actually seen its prevalence rates decrease in various age groups since it decriminalized all drugs in 2001. Prevalence rates measure how many people have consumed drugs over the course of their lifetime.

“I think it’s bizarrely underappreciated what’s been done in Portugal,” said Salon writer Glenn Greenwald, who authored the report. Greenwald, who speaks fluent Portuguese, traveled to Portugal in 2008 to study the affects of drug decriminalization in the country.

Because drugs were not legalized outright in Portugal, violations of laws prohibiting drug possession for personal usage are now merely treated as administrative offenses and carry with them no criminal charges. Drug trafficking, however, continues to be prosecuted as a criminal offense in the country.

Compared to the low to moderate levels of drug use in Portugal since decriminalization went into effect, the majority of EU states have drug use rates that are double and triple that of Portugal today, according to the report.

Greenwald, who presented his findings at a Friday event at the Cato Institute, which sponsored the writing of the report, noted that the United Kingdom and Estonia, EU nations with some of the harshest criminalization laws, also have the highest cocaine usage rates in the EU.

“None of the fears promulgated by opponents of Portuguese decriminalization has come to fruition, whereas many of the benefits predicted by drug policymakers from instituting a decriminalization regime have been realized,” writes Greenwald in the report. “While drug addiction, usage, and associated pathologies continue to skyrocket in many EU states, those problems—in virtually every relevant category—have been either contained or measurably improved within Portugal since 2001.”

Greenwald said the strongest evidence in Portugal that supports drug decriminalization is the declining usage of drugs in the crucial 15-19 age group.

In every single drug category, with the exception of the new drugs that have come into popular usage since 2001, like ketamine and GHB, teen drug use has declined. The biggest drug category declines were seen in marijuana, which saw teen drug use slip from just over 10 percent in 2001 to 6 percent in 2006.

“Drug policymakers are ecstatic about this,” Greenwald said.

Since decriminalization took effect in Portugal, deaths as a result of drug usage have declined significantly. Opiate-related deaths experienced the biggest drop, falling from about 275 deaths in 2000 to about 125 in 2006, according to information provided in the report from the Portugal National Institute of Legal Medicine.

The Portugal report, which also tracked drug usage rates outside of the European Union (the region of the world that has gone the farthest in decriminalizing drug usage), found that “by and large usage rates for each category of drugs continue to be lower in the EU than in non-EU states with a far more criminalized approach to drug usage.”

Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, said, “For a very long time all of the academics, who studied drug policy, had to acknowledge one reality — that the drug policy of the United States is the drug policy of the world.”

That premise, however, is now changing.

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