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April 2009
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Decrim in Portugal

Reminder: Glenn Greenwald will be at the Cato Institute tomorrow (Friday) at noon Eastern to talk about his paper: Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies. Peter Reuter will be responding, and Tim Lynch, moderating.
If you can’t get to the Cato Institute, you can watch the event live here.
The paper itself is now available to read online at Cato or you can download the pdf.
It’s a fascinating paper.
It’s amazing how little we have discussed Portugal and their drug policies in the states. I would imagine that is, in part, a function of how unfamiliar we are with the language. Fortunately, Glenn is fluent and bridges that gap for us.
Decriminalization in Portugal really works. It’s certainly not what I would wish for an end goal here – I want to see regulated legalization, not merely decriminalization. Yet what Portugal has in place is far superior to our criminalized approach. It’s more effective, it’s smarter, and it’s more… human. We can learn a lot. In particular, we can learn that moving away from criminalization will not result in the social breakdown that is the warped fantasy of prohibitionists.
So what led Portugal to pursue decriminalization?

… decriminalization was driven not by the perception that drug abuse was an insignificant problem, but rather by the consensus view that it was a highly significant problem, that criminalization was exacerbating the problem, and that only decriminalization could enable an effective government response. […]
Since Portugal enacted its decriminalization scheme in 2001, drug usage in many categories has actually decreased when measured in absolute terms, whereas usage in other categories has increased only slightly or mildly. None of the parade of horrors that decriminalization opponents in Portugal predicted, and that decrminalization opponents around the world typically invoke, has come to pass. In many cases, precisely the opposite has happened…

Glenn does a nice job of breaking down the statistics, and comparing them to the rest of the European Union, also noting that both drug-related disease and drug-related mortality rates have decreased since decriminalization.
So how does this work?
They worked very hard to take it out of the criminal justice system, recognizing that the criminal justice system is the worst place to turn to help people. Drug possession is still illegal, but being caught with up to 10 days supply of any drug is merely an administrative action, not a criminal action.

…police officers are required to issue citations to the offender, but they are not permitted to make an arrest. The citation is sent to the commission, and the administrative process will then commence.

Enter the Dissuasion Commission, which will hear from the alleged offender and

“gather the information needed in order to reach a judgement as to whether he or she is an addict or not, what substances were consumed, the circumstances in which he was consuming drugs when summoned, the place of consumption and his economic situation.” […]
… the overriding goal of that process is to avoid the stigma that arises from criminal proceedings. Each step of the process is structured so as to de-emphasize or even eliminate any notion of “guilt” from drug usage and instead to emphasize the health and treatment aspects of the process.
The alleged offender, for instance, can request that notice of the proceedings not be sent to his home in order to preserve privacy. Commission members deliberately avoid all trappings of judges, and the hearing is intentionally structured so as to avoid the appearance of a court. Members dress informally. The alleged offender sits on the same level as the commission members, rather than having the members sit on an elevated platform. Commission members are legally bound to maintain the complete confidentiality of all proceedings. At all times, respect for the alleged offender is emphasiezed.

Wow. Can you imagine that? Respect for drug users.
What does the Commission do then?

In 2005, there were 3,192 commission rulings. Of those, 83 percent suspended the proceeding; 15 percent imposed actual sanctions; and 2.5 percent resulted in absolution. That distribution has remained constant since the law’s enactment. Of the cases where sactions were imposed, the overwhelming majority merely required the offenders to report periodically to designated locales.

Identify the people with real problems and try to help them. Talk to the others and let them go.
How bizarre this is compared to what we see every day in the U.S.
If you can, check out the session with Glenn tomorrow (Friday), and report back here. I’d love to see it, but unfortunately, I’m in meetings at that time.

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