What we could learn from Portugal winning the drug war

Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives morning show on Fox News 1450 AM 96.7 FM . The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.

OPINION – It’s been nearly 40 years since President Nixon declared war on illicit drugs in the U.S. So what does America have to show for the drug war?  Nothing that, it turns out, people who consider themselves residents of the freest nation on earth would be willing to brag about.

Though we have just 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. boasts the world’s highest incarceration rate. Fully one quarter of the world’s inmates are imprisoned in America. More than half of those inmates are guilty of offenses where they harmed only themselves.

Our police forces have become increasingly militarized to fight the war on drugs. With over 50,000 raids taking place annually, SWAT teams have proliferated, along with a police state mentality that callously excuses the inevitable resulting collateral damage to innocents.

Thanks to asset forfeiture laws, police may confiscate large amounts of cash from motorists they’ve pulled over, without ever having to prove that a crime of any type was committed. A tool that was created to deprive drug lords of their ill-gotten gains is instead being used to deprive innocent people of their property without due process.

But the real question that remains is whether illicit drug use has declined as a result of all this aggressive action by the state. Nope. All the problems associated with drug abuse still exist in abundance with the added factor of less freedom and more intrusive government for everyone, not just those who use drugs.

Still, in spite of the billions of dollars wasted, the millions of lives wrecked and freedoms lost, a clear majority of Americans cling to the notion that these costs are necessary in order to send a message about the evils of drug abuse. Apparently, learning from history isn’t one of our strong points.

During the era of Prohibition in the early 20th century, efforts to eradicate booze from society met with similar results. A market for alcohol still existed and organized crime organizations and government agencies alike worked desperately to protect their respective income streams.

Then, as now, suppliers of the illicit substances could not go to court to resolve disputes, so murderous turf wars over distribution became the norm. Corruption abounded on both sides of the law. Eventually Americans became fed up with the hypocrisy and repealed Prohibition. It took another 40 years for the drug warriors to try to reinvent the wheel.

Thankfully, not every government keeps making the same mistakes.

In 2001, the government of Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs.  From pot to cocaine to heroin, the criminal penalty was removed. Naturally, this bold move prompted dire predictions of increased drug abuse, higher crime and all manner of societal disintegration.

But the facts of what’s happened in Portugal over the past 10 years tell a very different story. Portuguese government health experts say hard drug use in their country has plummeted over 50 percent. Instead of imprisoning addicts and labeling them criminals, medical experts and psychologists are treating those with drug problems. And it’s working.

It makes sense that more drug users would seek help for their addiction when their treatment doesn’t consist of being locked in cages and subjected to years of prison rape. The cost of treatment is far lower than the cost of incarcerating, feeding and providing round-the-clock security for them in prison. Education and counseling are easier to promote and corruption doesn’t pay nearly as well in an environment that does not criminalize these behaviors.

Unfortunately, generations of Americans have been trained to believe that only the coercive power of the state can effectively address problems like drug abuse. Any solution that involves more, not less, freedom is met with suspicion and fear. We seem to enjoy labeling and punishing others as criminals for acts that primarily harm only them.

The institutions that make up a society include government, community, family, church, business, media, and academia. When too much power and deference is given to one institution over the others it creates an imbalance throughout society. However, when all these institutions work cooperatively, society is productive and freedom abounds.

A drug-free society is much more likely when people choose to live clean, sober lives as opposed to being forced to live that way.

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Copyright 2012 St. George News. 

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  • Malcolm Kyle February 17, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    During alcohol prohibition, all profits went to enrich thugs and criminals. Young men died every day on inner-city streets while battling over turf. A fortune was wasted on enforcement that could have gone on treatment. On top of the budget-busting prosecution and incarceration costs, billions in taxes were lost. Finally the economy collapsed. Sound familiar?

  • Brandt Hardin February 17, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    The War on Drugs failed $1 Trillion ago! This money could have been used for outreach programs to clean up the bad end of drug abuse by providing free HIV testing, free rehab, and clean needles. Harmless drugs like marijuana could be legalized to help boost our damaged economy. Cannabis can provide hemp for countless natural recourses and the tax revenue from sales alone would pull every state in our country out of the red! Vote Teapot, PASS IT, and legalize it. Voice you opinion with the movement and read more on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/01/vote-teapot-2011.html

  • Richard Ranney February 17, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    Very good article. I have long believed that the so called “war on drugs”, like so many government programs, is actually having the opposite effect of what is intended. The government thinks using “illegal” drugs is bad for you (any this is almost certainly true). But instead of simply educating people about the evils of drug use, they make it a crime, and put untold billions into interdicting drugs, jailing anyone selling or using drugs, etc. But this heavy handed approach does not result in less drug use. Instead it has the unintended consequence of causing a huge amount of murder, killing mayhem, etc. And the cost and loss to society of the incarceration of many tousands of people. Only education and a change in perception can cause a drop in drug use..

    When drugs are illegal, they are expensive. When they are expensive, only the relatively rich can afford them. Therefore, some expensive illegal drugs come to have an aura of an expensive (and therefore desirable) product. If drugs were legal, they would be cheap. Soon, these cheap drugs would become to be seen as what they are – a low class and disgusting way to get through life. Drugs and those wo use them would come to be looked down upon. Drugs would no longer be part of the asperation of those on the bottom of the economic ladder. The poor would no longer look to drugs as a reward for the time when they have enough money to buy them. I do believe that, in time, the legalization of drugs would result in LESS drug use by the general population.

    Milton Freidman, the Nobel Prize winning free market economist, always argued forcefully that all drugs should be legalized. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLsCC0LZxkY His arguments are as good today as they were when he made them many years ago.

  • Antonio Graça February 19, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    I wish what your article says was true, as I live in Portugal. However, despite all the hype that has been propalled by our media and some political sectors, those news do not match the official numbers released by the Portuguese Institute for Drugs and Drug Abuse. You can find the latest report (2010) in:
    http://www.idt.pt/PT/IDT/RelatoriosPlanos/Paginas/SituacaodoPais.aspx (in Portuguese, sorry!)

    The hard truth is we have less drug related convictions and less drug-related prisoners, and we have more people in pharmaceutical drug-addiction treatment (methadone). We also have less VIH drug-related infections. However, we have now 3 times more drug abuse-related deaths than in 2005 (page 44 of the report) and we keep the same level of positive results in post mortem tox screens (abt 9-10%, see page 45) as before depenalization. VIH infection decrease cannot be attributed to drug depenalization as non-drug abuse related infections decreased even more (page 38)

    We have more people consuming drugs now, and, despite a decrease in 2006 and 2007 in consumption among high-school students, that indicator has risen to an all time high in 2010.

    In terms of distribution, nothing really is going like it was anticipated. The number of aprehensions of all drugs is stable or rising since 2005, except for ecstasy, the least important of the major 4, marijuana, cocain, heroin, being the other 3 (page 59)

    I am not saying the program is bust, I am just saying it is too early to gloat about it and especially dangerous to derive lessons from this social experiment we are currently undertaking as we have so many good as bad news about it. Yes, we spend less money on prison inmates convicted of drug possession. But we have more deaths and more people consuming. We even have now deaths from methadone overdoses from people who have been under treatment and do not follow it properly.Trafficking continues unabatted and we have more young people trying dope.

    From where I stand, this seems pretty lame for a success! There are clear signs that the program failed its main focus: education and prevention. Now, with the country in dire financial situation, there is not much more we can hope will get the effort back on the right tracks…and now it is not an offence anymore to consume. I am expecting to see those ugly figures going up again and again. I think what we see in 2010 numbers is already a prologue of the coming years.

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