by Kevin Tang
Among heaps of dirty syringes and blood-soaked streets, hundreds of thousands of users desperately chased their next high. The deluge of drugs that flooded Portugal didn't care about who you were. Everyone – miners, bankers, students – was at risk. Despite a prosperous 1980s, Portugal was suddenly submerged under a tide of heroin and marijuana. Soon, the country faced the highest rates of HIV in the European Union.
Many Americans who see the following response from the Portuguese officials will feel an eerie sense of deja vu. With the criminal justice system at the helm of its campaign to end drug use, the country adopted hardline tactics that saw incarceration rates explode. By the end of the 1990s, nearly half of the prison population was arrested for drug-related crimes with no meaningful reduction in drug use, overdose deaths, or HIV.
In 2001, however, Portugal reversed its approach. The first nation in the entire world to do so, Portugal stopped prosecuting addicts and decriminalized all drugs with a harm reduction, a scientific based approach that emphasizes treating addicts with both proper care and dignity. Individuals caught with possession of drugs would not be incarcerated but rather be ordered to pay a fine or attend a mandatory meeting with a dissuasion committee of experts. The government expanded health services, ranging from new needle-syringe programs to methadone treatment.
Bucking initial fears and skepticism, the results of a public health approach were revelatory: Portugal now has the lowest drug mortality rates in Western Europe, with drug-related deaths falling more than 85 percent since the policy’s initial implementation. Incarceration of innocent addicts has plummeted, new cases of HIV have plunged, and proper utilization of treatment has increased. After nearly two decades, it is abundantly clear that a decriminalization approach based on harm reduction proves much more successful than punitive measures.
If drugs were present in Portugal, they are omnipresent in America today. The United States has been waging its war on drugs for decades, and the results are in. Our drug policy has failed miserably, with the number of people killed by drug overdoses in 2016 matching the number of soldiers killed in the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. As such, the United States ought to decriminalize all drugs and adopt a public health approach as outlined by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime and the World Health Organization. This initiative would immensely expand treatment options available to addicts such as through programs offering clean syringes and methadone.
Decriminalization is especially pressing in the United States because punitive drug measures have fueled race-driven mass incarceration in the United States for decades. Even though use of drugs is similar across different racial groups, African and Latino Americans are much more likely to be jailed. Along every stage of the criminal justice system, whether it be the arrests or the sentences, minorities bear the brunt of the War on Drugs. For instance, prosecutors are twice as likely to push for a mandatory minimum sentence for minority defendants than for white defendants when they are charged with the same crime. Nevertheless, such institutionalized discrimination should not shock us; the original intent of the War on Drugs was to subdue not drug abuse but marginalized committees, as revealed by top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman:
"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
Although conventional wisdom holds that drug use is dangerous to society, statistics show that over 80% of incarcerated drug users were arrested for possession only – and not for violent crimes. Incarceration is a disproportionate and ineffective method for reforming addicts, especially since only 11% of inmates will ever receive any treatment while in prison. Even if compulsory treatment in prison works, the dismal accessibility to it renders it feckless. On the other hand, a public health approach would vastly expand treatment options and decrease drug use since it deters people from using drugs in the first place through proper education and treatments those who have already fallen prey to addiction.
As the suffering caused by the War on Drugs becomes more apparent and urgent, movements to decriminalize and legalize drugs has gained traction. From Bernie Sanders to Elizabeth Warren, Democratic candidates for the 2020 election have touted the decriminalization of marijuana as a major facet of their platforms. Internationally, member states of the United Nations have unanimously declared the War on Drugs a failure and advocated for a harm reduction approach.
It has been almost two decades, but the wounds of drug abuse in Portugal are still healing. However, Portugal's scars serve as a powerful testament to what happens when governments champion the dignity and humanity of addicts through a public health approach. For decades, the War on Drugs has devastated hundreds of thousands of lives, weaponizing incarceration to achieve dubious ends. It's time for America to decriminalize and seriously rethink its drug policy.