There is another pandemic besides COVID-19 that has been sweeping the nation: the drug epidemic. Called the worst drug crisis in American history, 81,000 people lost their lives to overdoses in 2019 alone, and this number grows annually. To put that in perspective, guns, the center of one of our nation’s most intense political arguments, take the lives of around 30,000 people per year. In 2020, the drug crisis became so severe that some hospitals reported having as many overdoses in the year as they had experienced in the past decade.
As more and more of our loved ones fall to addiction, it is clear that this is a public health emergency. But what if the solution to this problem is already known? The answer to this issue lies in a country that has made all drugs legal.
Portugal, once Europe’s worst country for drug abuse and death, is now a massive public health success story, epitomizing what it takes to overcome a drug crisis. Portugal employed a system that Oregon recently copied, becoming the first state to decriminalize all drugs in the United States.
Portugal and Oregon did not pass these laws based solely on opinion. The war on drugs has been going on for over four decades. Proponents of drug prohibition claim that such policies reduce drug-related crime, drug overdoses and are an effective means of disrupting and dismantling organized crime. In reality, our current approach is not only ineffective, but also counter productive in all of these categories, domestic and abroad. As the amount of money and resources we devote to the drug war grows each year, so do our problems in each of these categories.
The incarceration occurring because of current drug legislation serves as a key argument for decriminalization. Today, the U.S. is the most imprisoned society in history, with 50% of these indictments happening as a result of drug offenses. Moreover, the legislation has added deeply to the systemic racism of this country. As of today, over one-third of black males between the ages of 15 to 35 are currently in jail, have a criminal record or have a warrant out for their arrest, overwhelmingly due to drug charges.
In short, decriminalizing drugs acknowledges the harm of drug use but argues that drug prohibition is even worse. Prohibition does not stop the problem, but instead just creates a series of new ones. In this argument, everyone takes an anti-drug stance. The only difference between the two stems from the viewpoints of prohibitionists versus reformers. A prohibitionist believes that the best way to deal with this all-time high of drug use comes through the construction of new prisons and deploying military vehicles to patrol, while a reformer believes that one can deal with the tragedy of drug use by allocating funds to education and addiction treatment. This, in essence, is the goal of drug decriminalization.
Portugal acts as the smoking gun in this debate. In 1999, when Portugal had the highest heroin addiction rates in all of Europe, with one out of 100 people addicted to the substance, the government decided to call in a group of drug experts to find a new solution. The experts proposed a bold solution; instead of following the same criminalization approach as America does today, including crackdowns and harsh punishment, the experts decided that it would be best to decriminalize all drugs. This meant everything from weed to crack.
They realized a couple of things, starting with the fact that they had to acknowledge the unproblematic nature of most users. They did not worry too much about these users, outside of offering safety advice, but instead, they focused on the addicts who needed the most help. They also realized that they had already tried the terroristic approach: threatening drug addicts and imposing severe prison sentences on them until they stop. Spoiler alert: the terroristic approach did not work.
With that, they devised a system that not only decriminalized drugs such as crack but gave users the help they needed. A major worry of the opposition was that the number of addicts would rise and roam the streets, causing an already-terrible issue to implode. This never happened.
A decade later, what did the results show? According to The European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction and The British Journal of Criminology, the population of drug users saw an increase from 3.4 to 3.7%. But this increase alone is not as worrying as it seems. The change in laws did not cause this increase; instead, the increase followed a trend all Western world countries experienced, regardless of their drug laws. This increase also did not include rises in the three forms of drug use that prohibitionists argue as reasons for continuing the drug war: drug addiction, overdoses and teen drug use.
In Portugal, records of addicts have gone down by half, from 100,000 to 50,000. Injections went down almost half, from three-and-a-half people per 1,000 to two. Additionally, overdoses in Portugal went from being one of the worst problems in western Europe to being five times under the EU average today. When comparing the situation to neighboring European states, such as Spain and Italy, who still wage the drug war, only Portugal experienced declining rates in any of these categories. This is how well the system has worked in helping addicts. Not only did Portugal deal with its drug issue, but it also almost solved drug related issues that threatened to tear its society apart.
The main effect on society, however, comes from the non-harmful users. I already touched upon the U.S. imprisonment rate relating to drug charges. In contrast, Portugal’s system did not throw non-harmful users into jail, which can notably force them into more severe addiction. Instead, they helped addicts get real, well-paying jobs — one of the biggest reasons their program has worked so well. In contrast, drug users in the U.S. receive the death sentence when it comes to the job market: a criminal record.
There is a second argument to be made, one in which America takes what I believe is the next step and does not just decriminalize, but legalizes all drugs.
If we look at this issue like an economics class, decriminalization deals with the demand, helping addicts get off drugs, while legalization deals with the supply.
As our government has continued fighting a war on drugs, there has also been an ongoing war on drugs in virtually every corner of America. Just as alcohol prohibition gave rise to gangs attempting to control the booze trade, the multi-billion dollar underground drug trade gives rise to gangs and cartels filling the market. Without regulation, these gangs and cartels turn to violence to protect and further their power, ultimately leading to the number one cause of homicides in America. Furthermore, these unregulated drugs often contain lethal chemical quantities or combinations which have led to the rise of fentanyl overdoses, a big reason for the deadliness of the current opioid epidemic.
If the government legalized all drugs, these issues would diminish. You do not hear about anyone trying to control the Palmetto Bay Budweiser trade today, nor of bad alcohol causing alcohol poisoning from one drink. Once one realizes that one cannot ever reach impossible expectations of zero percent drug use, one can begin to truly deal with this ongoing pandemic and start seeing real results.
While we may disagree on what changes to policy we should take, after over four decades of the drug war, there should be no debate on if change is needed. Addicts are not scums of the earth or outcasts, but members of our society with a disease that does not allow them to function. Right now, they are being offered the direct opposite of a solution.