When having conversations about the drug war, it's important to look at real-world examples of policies that work and don't work. Probably the most commonly-cited example of an alternative to the drug war approach is Portugal. Faced with sharply increasing rates of addiction and drug-related disease, Portugal, in 2001, decided to switch tactics and decriminalize all drugs. At the the same time, they also implemented a variety of harm-reduction initiatives like needle-exchange programs, increased funding for addiction treatment, and so forth.
Here, we're gonna take a close look at the data before and after decriminalization in several key areas, including drug usage, intravenous AIDS transmission, and criminality. The final conclusion I reach is that decriminalization in Portugal has been an overwhelming success.
I'm also gonna debunk some of the most common arguments you'll hear made by drug warriors on why they think Portugal's policy change has been a failure. As we'll see, rather than being firmly grounded in facts and solid reasoning, these arguments are filled to the brim with fallacies and falsehoods.
Let's begin by looking at drug usage rates. Opponents of the policy change would have you believe that decriminalization would lead to an epidemic of drug usage in the country—almost as if you couldn't even set foot outside without stepping on discarded needles and tripping over doped up homeless people! What are the facts?
Glenn Greenwald puts Portugal under a microscope in a 2009 CATO Institute publication entitled "Drug Decriminalization In Portugal: Lessons For Creating Fair And Successful Drug Policies." Here in this graph from the paper, we see data on the percentage of students in the 7th, 8th, and 9th grade that have used a wide variety of drugs, ranging from cannabis to cocaine to heroin to LSD. As we can see, usage rages for virtually every single drug have declined from 2001 to 2006. Another graph—looking at 10th, 11th and 12th graders—shows the exact same trend.
"Think of the children!", we're often told by supporters of the drug war. Sounds like something a pedophile might say! No, my response is: Yeah, why don't you think of the children?
You might be asking yourself: Why would usage rates in children, specifically, drop following decriminalization? It might have something to do with that rebellious teenager cliché: When using drugs is against the law, kids might feel cool and daring when they try them—especially when these drugs are against the law for all members of society and not just children. This is what Eddy Engelsman, the former Dutch Drug Czar, suggested after teenage cannabis use dropped significantly in Holland following a relaxation of their drug laws. As he put it,
"'We succeeded in making pot boring.'"
Source: p. 230, Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It, Second Edition, by Judge James P. Gray. 2012.
There's also a section in Ken Burns' documentary series on Prohibition where Pete Hamill says the following:
"Never underestimate the need for young dopes to defy the conventional laws. You want something—you want them to brush their teeth? Make it illegal. Make toothpaste illegal. And they'll be standing on the roof brushing away."
Now obviously he's being facetious here when he says this. (As I say that, Pete Hamill kicks down my door and he's like "No, I was being totally serious. Fuck toothpaste. I hate that stuff." Then he smiles and he's missing like half of his teeth.)
I think there is something to this idea—and now that drugs are no longer against the law in Portugal, there's no longer that same opportunity for youthful rebellion. So now, to get that same feeling of danger and adventure that they used to get from drugs, children in Portugal are gonna have to turn to some other form of criminal activity, like jaywalking. I did that the other day and—my goodness!—what an adrenaline rush!
A cop sees me jaywalking and he's like "Hey! Come on, man: What are you doing?"
And I'm like: "I'm not going back to prison! You'll never take me alive!", and then I pull out an uzi and just start spraying in his general direction.
The cop ducks for cover and he's like: "Jesus Christ! I was just gonna give this guy a warning! A jaywalking ticket is ten dollars in this city!"
Another graph from Greenwald's paper takes a look at lifetime usage rates among 15–24 year olds of any illicit drug between 2001 and 2007. And lifetime usage, of course, describes a person who has used a drug at least a single time in their entire life. As we can see, there's been a slight usage increase in 15–24 year olds, from 13% to 15%. In 15–19 year olds, there's been a slight decrease from 11% to 8%. And, in 20–24 year olds, drug usage increased from 14% to 22%.
Drug warriors might be tempted to look at a single data set like this and conclude that decriminalization has been a failure—because, according to certain metrics, usage has gone up. However, when you look at a more expanded data set of this same age range, you get a completely different picture.
As we can see here in this graph from the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, yes, between 2001 and 2007, lifetime drug usage increased from 12 to 15%—but past-year and past-month usage actually declined!, from 8 to 7% and 6 to 4%, respectively. And these, I would argue, are much more important metrics than overall lifetime usage, because these are much more reflective of your actual habits and whether you're addicted.
According to this lifetime prevalence criteria, I would technically be classified as a user of cocaine—because I tried cocaine exactly one time in my life over 3 years ago. Frankly it wasn't that interesting to me and I don't plan on using it again—and that once-in-a-life usage statistic isn't indicative of how I'm living my life, because here has been my relationship with recreational drugs for the past year or two: crystal meth every single day, baby! No, I'm kidding: completely stone-cold sober with the exception of caffeine like once or twice a month—'cause I'm fuckin' hardcore like that!
I show up at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and—after being quiet and cagey for the whole meeting—I finally muster up the courage to talk after much prodding from the organizer. I'm like: "Well, you know, this is kind of hard to talk about...but 3 weeks ago...I had a cup of coffee."
They look around at each other and they're like: "Is this guy fuckin' serious?"
Once-in-a-lifetime users are not the people that we should be worried about, because the guy who tried cocaine one time isn't likely to be overdosing in the gutter or breaking into your house and robbing you to pay for drugs. If you catch me breaking into your house and stealing shit, I'm doing it purely for the excitement—or most likely because you're not supporting me on Patreon and I'm taking what I feel is rightfully mine.
You hear a noise at night and you're like: "Hey! Who's there? *turns on flashlight* Is that...A Skeptical Human?"
And I'm like "Yeah, man. What's up?"
You're like: "What are you doing in here?"
I'm like: "Not much. I'm just havin' a look around, seein' what I like."
You're like: "Dude, you can't just break in here and steal shit."
And I'm like: "I don't know, man. I think I'd find your argument... a little more persuasive if you were to become a supporter on Patreon."
You're like: "Wow, dude: Your Patreon appeals are getting more desperate by the day," and then you become a supporter and we all live happily ever after.
So not only did the more important metrics of past-year and past-month usage decrease from 2001 to 2007, but they decreased even further in 2012, down from 8 to 7 to 6% and 6 to 4 to 3%, respectively.
We see a similar, although slightly different, trend in 15–64 year olds: Overall usage increases from 8 to 12% from 2001 to 2007, then drops down to 10% in 2012. For past-year usage, we see a smaller initial spike from 3% to 4% between 2001 and 2007, then a drop to 2% in 2012. Finally, past-month usage stayed at about 2.5% in 2007 and dropped to about 1.5% in 2012.
What could explain this initial spike and the subsequent moving back in the direction of normalcy that we see in these lifetime usage numbers? This could be due to what I call the "celebration phase": Drugs are decriminalized, a small percentage of additional people go out and try these drugs, but—as the number of past-month users makes clear—they don't become hooked, they don't become habitual users, but instead, they were just having some harmless fun, and after a few years, decriminalization becomes the norm, it loses the exciting appeal of novelty, and usage rates begin to drop back down.
This usage data could also be pushed upwards even if drug usage rates have stayed the same, and here's how this could work: When using drugs is against the law—even when people are told that the survey results are confidential—some percentage of respondents might lie and say that they don't use drugs when they actually do. Pot smokers are notoriously paranoid after all!
Maybe they suspect the survey information will get passed onto the police and they'll get their house raided, or maybe they're worried their university will see the results and rescind their scholarships. The basic point is that the criminalization of drugs might cause people to under-report their drug usage—and this post-decriminalization spike might be nothing more than a spike in honesty as opposed to a spike in drug usage.
What about the drops in past-year and past-month drug usage? Isn't this the exact opposite of what drug warriors assured us would happen in Portugal? Why were they so embarrassingly wrong in their dire predictions?
Well the drop in past-month and past-year prevalence is almost certainly the result of Portugal placing a stronger emphasis on harm reduction in their drug policy. Portugal didn't just decriminalize drugs and that's the end of it; they decriminalized drugs, and they used the freed up resources to help offer drug addicts the stigma- and fear-free treatment that they need. Indeed, the decriminalization is a key component of the harm reduction strategy.
As Greenwald explains in the paper,
"Interviews with Portuguese drug officials confirmed that before decriminalization, the most substantial barrier to offering treatment to the addict population was the addicts’ fear of government officials as a result of criminalization . . . they were afraid of being arrested and prosecuted.
. . . Moreover, decriminalization freed up resources that could be channeled into treatment and other harm-reduction programs. A related rationale for decriminalization was that removal of the stigma attached to criminal prosecution for drug usage would eliminate a key barrier for those wishing to seek treatment.
. . . they did not embrace decriminalization despite their belief that it would lead to increased usage. Rather, they embraced decriminalization as the best option for minimizing all drug-related problems, including addiction."
Drug usage is one thing; but more significant metrics are drug-related diseases and deaths, so let's take a look at how Portugal has been doing in these areas since decriminalization.
As we can see here in this graph from Greenwald, since 2001, there has been a sharp divergence in the breakdown of new cases of HIV and AIDS: In 2001, there was a 50/50 diagnosis split between drug users and non-users, whereas only five years later in 2006, only about 35% of those who received HIV and AIDS diagnoses were drug users.
Here we see another graph which goes back several years earlier, taken from an article by Alex Wodak on TheConversation.com. In the years leading up to decriminalization, HIV infections among injecting drug users were skyrocketing, from 169 infections in 1993 to 1,497 in 2000. Immediately after decriminalization, this number began to plummet, down to only 56 infections in 2012.
Very important to note is that decriminalization itself is, in large part, responsible for this trend. How do we know this? Because Portugal had already begun a needle-exchange program 8 years before decriminalization—in 1993—yet intravenous HIV infections continued to dramatically increase, and only began decreasing after decriminalization.
This is a very clear indication that it's simply not enough to implement harm-reduction programs while simultaneously treating drug users as criminals, because the fear of prosecution will keep them away from these programs. Only after you eliminate the prospect of legal trouble do they come running.
Greenwald also shows us the following graph, illustrating that in the decade before decriminalization, acute drug-related deaths were increasing very sharply. And just to make it absolutely clear, an acute, drug-related death is a death whose proximate cause was the drug itself. So in the years leading up to decriminalization, annual deaths from drugs increased from less than 50 in 1987 to over 300 by 1999.
The TDPF shows what the trendline is like after decriminalization. I don't know if their inclusion criteria for "drug-induced deaths" is the exact same as that of Glenn's "acute drug-related deaths," but much more important than the absolute numbers are the general trends. As we can see, starting in 2001, the number of drug-induced deaths was 80. This number dropped precipitously in the following years, down to about only 20 per year over the next decade.
So according to virtually every single drug-related metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a success. More specifically, decriminalization in combination with harm-reduction programs has sharply reduced problem drug usage, intravenous disease transmission, and the number of drug-related deaths. What more could you ask for? A personal butler to light your blunt for you? Because they probably have those in Portugal.
I would also argue that throwing fewer people in jail for the victimless crime of using drugs is a victory in and of itself. Why should people face criminal sanctions for seeking a pleasurable mental state within the confines of their home? This makes no moral sense to me.
"Oh, but the drugs might cause them harm!" Ok? And why should doing things that are not in your own best interest be considered a crime? If a person punches themself in the face, should we charge them assault? Should we jail the morbidly obese while we're at it? And if the idea is to criminalize drugs that cause people harm, why are tobacco and alcohol legal? These kill about 500,000 Americans each year—far more than all illicit drugs combined. So if this is our standard and if we're being consistent, shouldn't we also make the usage of alcohol and tobacco a criminal offense?
No matter what perspective you look at the issue from, the criminalization of drugs does not make sense.
Not surprisingly, there is a lot of misinformation about Portugal that needs to be debunked at this point. Many supporters of the drug war will argue that the policy change has actually been a failure—but when you take a close look at their data and arguments, you see that Portugal's critics are simply mistaken.
Melanie Phillips wrote an article for The Daily Mail entitled "Drug legalisation? We need it like a hole in the head." My smart-ass response to this title would be that we do need holes in our head; how else do you expect to be able to breathe? I guess you could get one of those little holes in your trachea or something. *In raspy, smoker voice:* "Say no to drugs!", *coughs like old smoker*
In her article, Melanie quotes Manuel Pinto Coelho, Medical Doctor of the Association for a Drug Free Portugal. As he argues,
"'Drug decriminalization in Portugal is a failure . . . There is a complete and absurd campaign of manipulation of facts and figures.'"
Manuel then goes on to ironically engage in a complete and absurd campaign of fact manipulation.
He continues by criticizing a BBC article which
". . . says that the number of newly reported cases of HIV and AIDS among drug addicts has declined substantially every year since 2000 (907) until 2008 (267) . . .
As a matter of fact Portugal remains the country with the highest incidence of IDU-related AIDS and it is the only country recording a recent increase. 703 newly diagnosed infections, followed from a distance by Estonia with 191 and Latvia with 108 reported cases. (EMCDDA – November 2007)."
Not only is Manuel's argument grossly flawed, but he also seems incapable of actually reading and understanding information from his own source material.
First off, notice the shifting of the goalposts that takes place here. Somebody points out the decline in intravenous AIDS transmission. Instead of demonstrating that there hasn't actually been a decline, Manuel tries to make it appear as if he's debunking this point without actually doing anything of the sort. His response to this trendline isn't to disprove the trendline; it is to simply say that Portugal still has a high number of drug-related AIDS diagnoses relative to other countries.
He makes the same mistake when he writes that:
"'The number of new cases of HIV / AIDS and Hepatitis C in Portugal recorded among drug users is eight times the average found in other member states of the European Union.'“
Do you see the sleight-of-hand that's going on here? The question before us is: What is the impact of Portugal's drug policy on intravenous HIV & AIDS diagnoses? The answer is unequivocal: There has been a sharp decline. Manuel responds to this by saying: "Oh yeah? Well the number of cases is... still pretty high. So whattaya think about that?" What I think about that is that it's completely irrelevant to the question at hand and that this is a pathetic attempt to dodge the overarching point that this policy change has been very effective in this exact area.
I also don't know where he's getting his information from. You'd think it would be the source that he cites for this information, but if you actually look at the source material, it's nowhere to be found. His source for this claim is a November 2007 publication by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. If you actually search through the report, however, the number 703 doesn't appear anywhere within the document. There is an October 2007 publication that focuses specifically on Portugal—but again, the number 703 is nowhere to be found. It's ironic that the person opposed to drug legalization is the one that appears to be hallucinating here!
And just take a look at what the 2007 EMCDDA data shows us on this question. As we can see, the number of drug-using HIV and AIDS cases has been steadily and significantly declining since 2001. There is one year where there's a tiny increase: 2005. It's kind of confusing because there appears to be a typo here on the graph: The numbers written show a decline, but the points plotted show a tiny increase.
Indeed, they write in the report that in Portugal, there were "an estimated 36 new cases per million population in 2005, up from 30 cases per million in 2004."
However, they also include a crucial caveat on this point:
"The rises in 2004 (HIV cases) and 2005 (AIDS cases) in Portugal may be due to increased attention and reporting by professionals following discussions regarding the change to mandatory HIV reporting in 2005."
This important detail goes curiously unmentioned by Manuel.
Even if this minor increase in 2005 was valid, so what? It's deceptive and pointless to cherrypick a one-year fluctuation like this; the important thing is to look at the overall trend, which clearly shows that intravenous HIV cases have sharply decreased in response to these policy changes. Nowhere does Manuel refute this point; he simply shifts the goalposts and then muddies the water by isolating a self-serving and uninformative statistic.
Look at the unmistakably downward trend in HIV/AIDS diagnoses in this EMCDDA data, and then look at what Manuel is urging us to pay attention to: this minuscule, virtually undetectable one-year increase in AIDS diagnoses. How little do you have to care about the truth to intentionally ignore the overall trend and deceive people into thinking that intravenous AIDS is actually on the increase in Portugal? This is one of the most shockingly dishonest distortions of the facts and statistics that I have ever seen.
Manuel makes some additional points in an article for the World Federation Against Drugs. As we will see, this man is clearly in the throes of a deep addiction to making silly arguments. As he writes,
"Portugal faces a worrying deterioration of the drug situation. The facts prove 'With 219 deaths from 'overdose' per year, Portugal has one of the worst results, with one death every two days. . . . Portugal registered an increase of deaths by more than 30% in 2005.'"
An increase of deaths by more than 30% in 2005, relative to what?, is the important question. Relative to the year 2000? 2001? The 10 years before decriminalization? The preceding year? How are we supposed to make a mental comparison if we don't even know what's being compared?
My best guess is that he means relative to the preceding year, as this is roughly what the data shows. But once again he's making the mistake of cherrypicking just one year's worth of data. Why is there no mention of the trend before decriminalization, where deaths were steadily increasing? Is it because a full examination of the data doesn't support his position?
Take a close look at this graph from the CATO publication. As we can see, the number of toxicological examinations conducted sharply increased from 2002 to 2006. If you're doing more testing for drugs, you're obviously going to find more drugs—just as if you put yourself around more women, you're going to be meeting more women. And that probably explains why I'm still single! But hey, look on the bright side: at least I get plenty of love from the comments section. (I go to read the comments and they're all like: "Fuck you!", "Eat shit, faggot!")
Manuel also makes the fundamental mistake of confusing positive tox results with drug overdoses. The Transform Drug Policy Foundation explains:
"Some have argued that, since 2001, drug-related deaths in Portugal either remained constant or actually increased. However, these claims are based on the number of people who died with traces of any illicit drug in their body, rather than the number of people who died as a result of the use of an illicit drug.
Given an individual can die with traces of drugs in their body without this being the cause of their death, it is the second number – derived from clinical assessments made by physicians, rather than post-mortem toxicological tests – that is the standard, internationally accepted measure of drug-related deaths. And according to this measure, deaths due to drug use have decreased significantly – from approximately 80 in 2001, to 16 in 2012."
And here, again, we see this trend illustrated graphically.
Manuel's arguments have actually convinced me that we should continue fighting the drug war—because to write such nonsense and think that you're making great points means that clearly you've been smoking something.
Manuel views using drugs as morally repugnant—yet he seems to have no qualms about outright lying. He writes that:
"The decriminalization of drugs in Portugal did not in any way decrease levels of consumption."
Really? Not in any way? How about this way, or that way, or this way?
All of this data that I just cited, by the way, was accessible when Manuel wrote this garbage in 2010, so he's either extremely uninformed and made no effort to actually research the question, or he's just lying about the facts.
His supporting evidence for this demonstrably false claim is the least worrisome metric: once in a lifetime or more usage. He points out that "the percentage of people who have experimented with drugs at least once in their lifetime increased from 7.8% in 2001 to 12% in 2007."
What kind of oak tree–sized stick up your ass do you have to have to lay awake at night worrying about people trying recreational drugs one time? As I noted earlier, much more important are the number of past-year or past-month users, and these have actually declined in Portugal since decriminalization.
Crime rates in Portugal are something else that drug warriors like to wave in front of our faces. For example, in a versusdebate on the drug war—which was complete and utter mayhem because they had like thirty people involved—Nigel Keegan argues the following:
"Eurostats statistics from Focus Bulletin says the crime in Portugal is up by 17% since 2001. And it also says that the murder rate is up by 40% since 2001."
On first glance, the increased crime argument is one that might make intuitive sense: More drug addicts might very well lead to more criminality to support the drug habit. Here's the thing, though: there aren't more drug addicts in Portugal. If you actually look at the facts you find that the number of past-month users has declined since decriminalization.
Pointing to crime data like this and blaming drug addicts is the classic fallacy of mistaking correlation for causation—except in this case, there isn't even a correlation, because the number of drug addicts has not been increasing! This guy has logical fallacies within his logical fallacies. Imagine being that wrong about a subject!
The TDPF presents a very interesting hypothesis for how crime rates could be elevated as an indirect result of decriminalization:
"While opportunistic thefts and robberies had gone up when measured in 2004, it has been suggested that this may have been because police were able to use the time saved by no longer arresting drug users to tackle (and record) other low-level crimes. Although difficult to test, this theory is perhaps supported by the fact that, during the same period, there was a reduction in recorded cases of other, more complex crimes typically committed by people who are dependent on drugs, such as thefts from homes and businesses."
They also point out some key facts about Portugal's homicide data:
"A widely repeated claim is that, as a result of Portugal’s decriminalisation policy, drug-related homicides increased 40% between 2001 and 2006. But this claim is based on a misrepresentation of the evidence. The 40% increase (from 105 to 148) was for all homicides, defined as any 'intentional killing of a person, including murder, manslaughter, euthanasia and infanticide' – they were not 'drug-related'. In fact, there are no data collected for drug-related homicides.
This claim stems from the 2009 World Drug Report, in which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime speculated that the increase in homicides 'might be related to [drug] trafficking.' However, neither the UNODC nor anyone else has proposed a causal mechanism by which the decriminalisation policy could have produced this rise."
Your interpretation of the data also changes when you look at more recent years, as well. As we can see here in this graph from Knoema.com, yes, there was an increase in the homicide rate following decriminalization—but it began dropping back down in 2008, to the point that by 2014, it was actually below the rate that it was the year of the policy change.
For the sake of argument, we could even concede that this initial spike in homicides was the result of decriminalization: According to some metrics, drug usage did increase in Portugal following the policy change. We could imagine the gangs and criminal organizations that supply these drugs taking advantage of this increase in demand by getting more people on the streets to sell, expanding their territory, and so forth.
Even if this is what happened in Portugal, there's a simple solution to this problem: Actually legalize and regulate the sales of these drugs instead of leaving them in the hands of the black market. When you leave it up to these shady criminal organizations to sell drugs, it's not a big shock to see violence and criminality go hand-in-hand with drug sales.
This would not be a problem if selling these drugs became a legal, regulated industry. Budweiser and Coors Light distributors don't shoot it out in the street over turf wars, and they certainly don't kill politicians and terrorize civilians to get what they want. Many of the problems that drug warriors lay at the feet of drugs are actually caused by the criminalization of drugs, and black market violence is a clear example of this. So even if the homicide argument was valid, the answer wouldn't be for Portugal to move their drug policy backwards; it would be to continue moving it forward to build upon the many gains that they've already made.
Let's look at one final argument made against Portugal, explained and debunked by Glenn Greenwald in his paper:
"Before the enactment of the decriminalization law, opponents insisted that the proposed change in law would make Portugal a center of so-called drug tourism. Paulo Portas, leader of the conservative Popular Party, said: 'There will be planeloads of students heading for [Portugal] to smoke marijuana and take a lot worse, knowing we won’t put them in jail. We promise sun, beaches and any drug you like.' Such fears have turned out to be completely unfounded. Roughly 95 percent of those cited for drug offenses every year since decriminalization have been Portuguese."
I also find it hilarious that this is what the fear basically boils down to: People will travel here and stimulate our economy while having fun. What an unacceptable and outrageous proposition!
So after taking a look at the data, what can we conclude about the decriminalization of drugs in Portugal?
Contrary to the grave warnings of drug warriors, following the policy change, drug usage only increased in Portugal according to the least worrisome metric: lifetime drug usage, largely of adults. Lifetime usage among schoolchildren actually declined. Whatever minor increases we did see, if genuine, aren't particularly alarming—and these apparent increases could at least partly be the result of increased honesty in reporting following decriminalization, rather than increased usage.
The more important metrics of past-year and past-month usage have actually declined in Portugal since decriminalization—as have the rates of intravenous HIV and AIDS transmission. These declines are the product of not just decriminalization, and not just harm-reduction initiatives, but both of these working together. Only after you eliminate the stigma of drug usage and the fear of criminal penalties do users, in large numbers, seek out needle-exchange programs and badly-needed addiction treatment.
Drug-induced deaths have also decreased since the policy change, and most of the critiques of Portugal do not stand up to scrutiny. Many of the anti-decriminalization arguments—about overdoses and AIDS transmission—depend upon deception, the cherrypicking of data, and intentionally ignoring the overall trends.
Finally, data on crime rates and homicides can't be blamed on the policy change, because problem usage rates actually declined during this period—and the increase in numbers for more petty crimes could actually be caused, in part, by freed up police resources that are no longer wasted prosecuting people for the victimless crime of using drugs. More recent data shows that the homicide rate in Portugal has been declining—not increasing.
Contrary to what the lies and propaganda of drug warriors might lead you to believe, according to virtually every single relevant metric, the decriminalization of drugs in Portugal has been an outstanding success.