Next month, Californians will vote on Proposition 19, a measure to legalize marijuana. Because no state has ever taken such a step, voters are being subjected to a stream of fear-mongering assertions, unaccompanied by evidence, about what is likely to happen if drug prohibition is repealed. But it need not — and should not — be that way.
Ten years ago, Portugal became the first Western nation to pass full-scale, nationwide decriminalization. That law, passed Oct. 1, 2000, abolished criminal sanctions for all narcotics — not just marijuana but also “hard drugs” like heroin and cocaine. This applies only to drugs for personal use; drug trafficking remains a criminal offense. There is now a decade’s worth of empirical data on what actually happens — and does not happen — when criminal sanctions against drug possession are lifted. Individuals caught with drugs in Portugal are no longer arrested or treated as criminals. Instead, they are sent to a tribunal of health professionals, where they are offered the opportunity, but are not compelled, to seek government-provided treatment. For those found to be addicts, tribunals have the power to impose noncriminal sanctions. But in practice, the overriding goal is to direct people to treatment.
By any metric, Portugal’s drug-decriminalization scheme has been a resounding success. Drug usage in many categories has decreased in absolute terms, including for key demographic groups, like 15-to-19-year-olds. Where usage rates have increased, the increases have been modest — far less than in most other European Union nations, which continue to use a criminalization approach. Portugal, whose drug problems were among the worst in Europe, now has the lowest usage rate for marijuana and one of the lowest for cocaine. Drug-related pathologies, including HIV transmission, hepatitis transmission and drug-related deaths, have declined significantly.
I’m convinced that drug prohibition, and especially the “War on Drugs” which enables it, is going to be one of those policies which, decades from now, future generations will be completely unable to understand how we could have tolerated. So irrational and empirically false are the justifications for drug prohibition, and so costly is the War waged in its name, that it is difficult to imagine a more counter-productive policy than this (that’s why public opinion is inexorably realizing this despite decades of Drug War propaganda and the absence of any real advocacy for decriminalization on the part of national political leaders). In that regard, and in virtually every other, the War on Drugs is a mirror image of the War on Terror: sustained with the same deceitful propaganda, driven by many of the same motives, prosecuted with similar templates, and destructive in many of the same ways.
— Glenn Greenwald