Editorial: More than just decriminalisation

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The recent talk of drug policy and a shift towards the decriminalisation of drug usage is a healthy discussion for the nation. For too long, we have been following the beaten track of making drug users criminals without looking at the issue of drug use in a holistic manner. It is time we change. The balance between criminalisation and decriminalisation is not easy to achieve and it was recently summed up well by one of the panelists on Observer Radio’s Big Issues Programme, Arvel Grant.
He said, “If we can find a way of continuing a strong criminal approach to the supply side of drugs, while decriminalising the demand side, so that people who are most likely to become hardcore users of the stuff can seek help and get help in an open and non-threatening manner, we probably would begin to put a dent in the overall problem of crime.” Well, guess what? A grand experiment along those lines has already happened and the long-term results are there for analysis. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. In case you do not know, we are talking about Portugal.
In 2001, the powers that be in that country decided that the drug epidemic was out of control and the traditional methods of fighting the problem were ineffective. They decided to change their approach to drug policy and decriminalised all drugs (for users only). Yes, all! Even cocaine and heroin! It was truly a case of ‘zigging’ when most every other country was ‘zagging.’ Instead of focusing on the criminal aspect of drug usage, Portugal decided to focus on it from the perspective of health, and the authorities engaged the citizenry in a major public health conversation.
So while the United States saw the opioid epidemic grip the nation and over 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016 (according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse), Portugal saw heroin usage drop from 100,000 to only about 25,000 according to its Health Ministry.
Further, the number of people that died from drug overdoses plummeted by over 85 percent. Meanwhile, Portugal’s mortality rate fell to the lowest in Western Europe; estimated to be one-tenth of the United Kingdom and about one-fiftieth of the United States. Of course, this more compassionate view toward the public health issue of drug use and addiction did not mean that drugs became legal, it simple meant that instead of becoming criminals, drug users and addicts were fined and offered treatment.
Treatment rather than punishment was the new way of dealing with the problem. Drug pushers and suppliers were still dealt with harshly under the existing laws. There were other benefits as well. For example, the law enforcement organisations and the justice system no longer had to spend tens of millions of dollars pursuing and incarcerating drug users. Those resources were reallocated to other areas, leading to a more efficient use of scarce resources. And the savings did not stop there. Portugal’s Health Ministry apparently spends less than $10 per citizen per year on its drug policy; in comparison, the U.S. has spent over $10,000 per household over the decades pursuing their drug policy.
That adds up to over $1 trillion! The ‘Portuguese model’ is by no means a perfect system and it does have its critics, but there is enough there for outsiders to take a look and analyse for themselves – and many nations are. And let’s face it, decriminalisation in and of itself is not enough. There are massive risks involved if it is not paired with social services that support the usage side. Decriminalisation could very well lead to an increase in usage if the primary focus is not on public health.
Portugal’s experience showed an increase immediately following the policy shift, and that may have continued if it were not for the strong public health initiative upon which it was founded. One thing leads to another, so as we march towards decriminalisation of marijuana for users of small amounts, we should begin to look at drug use and abuse more holistically and maybe pay a friendly visit to Portugal to see if there is anything we can learn. We may find that a caring approach is a better approach.

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