An interesting alternative to prosecuting drug crimes

The Washington Post has a very interesting (and very detailed) article about Portugal’s experiment with de-criminalizing drug use, and diverting offenders into treatment rather than sending them to jail. Here’s an extract.

Drugs in Portugal are still illegal. But here’s what Portugal did: It changed the law so that users are sent to counseling and sometimes treatment instead of criminal courts and prison. The switch from drugs as a criminal issue to a public health one was aimed at preventing users from going underground.

Other European countries treat drugs as a public health problem, too, but Portugal stands out as the only one that has written that approach into law. The result: More people tried drugs, but fewer ended up addicted.

Here’s what happened between 2000 and 2008:

– There were small increases in illicit drug use among adults, but decreases for adolescents and problem users, such as drug addicts and prisoners.

– Drug-related court cases dropped 66 percent.

– Drug-related HIV cases dropped 75 percent. In 2002, 49 percent of people with AIDS were addicts; by 2008 that number fell to 28 percent.

– The number of regular users held steady at less than 3 percent of the population for marijuana and less than 0.3 percent for heroin and cocaine – figures which show decriminalization brought no surge in drug use.

– The number of people treated for drug addiction rose 20 percent from 2001 to 2008.

. . .

Officials have not yet worked out the cost of the program, but they expect no increase in spending, since most of the money was diverted from the justice system to the public health service.

In Portugal today, outreach health workers provide addicts with fresh needles, swabs, little dishes to cook up the injectable mixture, disinfectant and condoms. But anyone caught with even a small amount of drugs is automatically sent to what is known as a Dissuasion Committee for counseling. The committees include legal experts, psychologists and social workers.

Failure to turn up can result in fines, mandatory treatment or other sanctions. In serious cases, the panel recommends the user be sent to a treatment center.

. . .

Whether the alternative approaches work seems to depend on how they are carried out. In the Netherlands, where police ignore the peaceful consumption of illegal drugs, drug use and dealing are rising, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Five Dutch cities are implementing new restrictions on marijuana cafes after a wave of drug-related gang violence.

However, in Switzerland, where addicts are supervised as they inject heroin, addiction has steadily declined. No one has died from an overdose since the program began in 1994, according to medical studies. The program is credited with reducing crime and improving addicts’ health.

The Obama administration firmly opposes the legalization of drugs, saying that it would increase access and promote acceptance, according to drug czar Kerlikowske. The U.S. is spending $74 billion this year on criminal and court proceedings for drug offenders, compared with $3.6 billion for treatment.

But even the U.S. has taken small steps toward Portugal’s approach of more intervention and treatment programs. And Kerlikowske has called for an end to the “War on Drugs” rhetoric.

“Calling it a war really limits your resources,” he said. “Looking at this as both a public safety problem and a public health problem seems to make a lot more sense.”

There is no guarantee that Portugal’s approach would work in the U.S. For one, the U.S. population is 29 times larger than Portugal’s 10.6 million.

Still, an increasing number of American cities are offering nonviolent drug offenders a chance to choose treatment over jail, and the approach appears to be working.

. . .

Nationally, between 4 and 29 percent of drug court participants will get caught using drugs again, compared with 48 percent of those who go through traditional courts.

San Francisco’s drug court saves the city $14,297 per offender, officials said. Expanding drug courts to all 1.5 million drug offenders in the U.S. would cost more than $13 billion annually, but would return more than $40 billion, according to a study by John Roman, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center.

The first drug court opened in the U.S. 21 years ago. By 1999, there were 472; by 2005, 1,250.

This year, new drug courts opened every week around the U.S., as states faced budget crises exarcebated by the high rate of incarceration on drug offenses. There are now drug courts in every state, more than 2,400 serving 120,000 people.

There’s more at the link. It makes very interesting reading. Highly recommended.

This is of particular interest to me as a former prison chaplain. I’ve seen many people in jail who, in my opinion, should not have been there, most of them committed for drug offenses. I simply don’t believe that a heavy drug user (as opposed to a dealer or distributor) should be in jail. By criminalizing their addiction, we’re adding billions of dollars to an already bloated criminal justice budget, whilst doing little or nothing to cure them or prevent them from backsliding as soon as they’re released. Indeed, drugs smuggled into prisons can be sold for a great deal more than their ‘street’ price, due to their scarcity. This racket’s become a very lucrative market for certain segments of the underworld, including most of the worst prison gangs.

I’ll be interested to see whether Portugal’s approach proves adaptable to the US criminal justice environment. I hope that the Federal Government, as well as States and local government, have the courage to try it. After all, it can’t possibly be worse than the mess we have now!



  1. My first question would be "OK, what will the gangs and drug families shift their business to?" I'd think that if drugs are legalized and taxed, we're going to end up with the same bootlegging we see with cigarettes, among other things. And there is still the problem of the southern border: something Portugal does not have to deal with. Perhaps I'm being overly pessimistic, but a lot of legal and social infrastructure will have to be created before the US can adopt the Portuguese or Swiss models.

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