Authorities Gain a Deeper Understanding of Drug Addiction Through Drug Decriminalization

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( — April 29, 2017) — In 1999, a national survey of drug addiction in Portugal found that nearly 100,000 people were addicted in some way to heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs. That meant 1% of the country’s population was struggling with drug addiction. To solve the issue, Portugal launched an unusual move in 2001 – it decriminalized all drug use.  

Now, anyone in the country carrying less than a few grams of some of the most common drugs isn’t arrested. Instead, the offenders are brought before dissuasion panels made up of experts who try to ascertain whether the offender is addicted or someone who’s experimenting recreationally and unlikely to use the drug again. Most cases are referred to drug treatment centers and rehabilitation clinics.

In other words, everyday recreational users found carrying drugs are treated as victims of a health issue, rather than criminals. Nevertheless, the program came under intense criticism when it was first launched. Perhaps the most searing dismissal came from the United Nations’ drug enforcement arm the International Narcotics Control Board.  

Nonetheless, research now suggests the program was effective. This program has had a remarkably positive impact on the country. In less than ten years the number of people addicted to hard drugs was reduced by 50%. Deaths by drug overdoses were cut down to 30 a year, a rate that has remained stable ever since.

The vast majority of Portugal’s drug enforcement resources now go to providing medical treatment and assistance. Less than 10% is spent on police enforcement. Portugal has gone from being Europe’s drug capital to the EU country with the second-lowest rate of fatalities by overdoses (followed closely by Romania).

It’s precisely this success that has inspired similar, albeit less extensive, programs in other parts of the world. Last year, Uruguay became the first Latin American country to completely legalize marijuana. A similar program is being considered by Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. In fact, legalizing recreational marijuana alongside the currently legal medical marijuana industry was one of Trudeau’s flagship campaign promises.

While Canada legalizes from top to bottom, the United States is gradually legalizing from bottom-up. Twenty-eight states in America have legalized the use of the drug and one in five Americans now live in a state where it is legal.     

It is estimated that nearly 25 countries around the world have some form of decriminalization or legalization of drugs.

A marginal shift towards decriminalization seems to be spreading across the globe as authorities gain a deeper understanding of drug addiction. Authorities in Portugal believe treatment and support has helped millions of average citizens regain control over their lives and minimize the impact of their addiction on their families and communities. Experts and medical professionals seem optimistic the program’s success can be recreated in other parts of the world soon.