If there were a proven way to win a war that the United States has been losing for decades and wasting billions of dollars on, shouldn’t the government adopt such a way immediately? The United States has been fighting the so-called “War on Drugs” since the final days of the Nixon administration. 46 years later, it is a war that has been lost.
The moral argument for keeping drugs illegal has been shared by both Republican and Democratic administrations for the past half century – that legalization is immoral and a detriment to a society of laws. But what is truly immoral is that, by pursuing this War on Drugs, the United States is perversely doing more harm than good. $48.7 billion a year is spent on enforcing drug prohibitions. 210,000 people are incarcerated for drug offenses. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.
To fix it, look to an unlikely source: Europe, namely Portugal, a country with its own myriad of woes but that has gotten it right with its drug laws. In 2001, in response to a crisis in drug-related HIV deaths and an addiction to heroin unmatched by any other country in the European Union, Portugal decriminalized the usage of all drugs. Instead of wasting the valuable resources of society in prosecuting and jailing these non-violent offenders, Portugal instead chooses to treat drug addiction as a public health issue. Get discovered using drugs and you will be referred to a treatment program and may pay a small fine.
The results have been mostly positive and completely eye-opening. As of 2015, Portugal had a record low of 3.4 deaths per million due to drug overdoses. The comparable statistic in the United States over the same time period was 185.7 deaths per million. Treatment for drug use has jumped 60% as of 2012 in Portugal, as people are free and even encouraged to visit clinics to seek help. This kind of help is woefully inadequate in the United States, where drug addicts often become homeless or incarcerated. The prison system in this country is in no shape to provide drug help for addicts either, and without proper help the addiction continues to spiral.
The incidence of drug-related HIV infections post-decriminalization in Portugal fell by 90%, partly due to the country’s embrace of needle exchange programs, like Say No! to a Used Syringe. In the United States, such programs exist in some areas, but are not particularly championed or adequately funded, which contributes to the high statistic of 7.4 cases per million of HIV occurring from drug use, disproportionally affecting minorities such as African-Americans and Hispanics, groups already hurt the most by America’s drug policies.
Currently, most salient is the issue of synthetics and manufactured drugs, given the ravaging new opioid addiction in the United States. With the illegality of ‘real’ drugs – marijuana, heroin, cocaine – addicts in the United States have found new avenues for their high in synthetic drugs like fentanyl. New synthetic drugs pop up too quickly for the United States to adequately regulate them, meaning that these drugs are not yet technically illegal. Less understood and thereby more dangerous than real drugs, these synthetics have launched a new drug crisis in America, leading to the largest annual jump in drug overdose deaths ever seen. Portugal has no such issue. With a legal market for real drugs and lower prices for such drugs due to the lack of a black market, drug users in Portugal feel no need to resort to the new class of synthetic drugs. Portugal’s drug laws all but guarantee that the current opioid crisis in the United States will never reach Portugal’s shores.
The United States has lost the War on Drugs. With the policies of the new administration and ideas from Jeff Sessions to crackdown on drug users even more, this country all but ensures that it will continue to plow billions into failed prohibitions, incarcerate non-violent offenders, and prop up the drug cartels on the border for years to come. The solution to these problems lies across the Atlantic. Legitimate debate is to be had about the morality of Portugal’s drug laws and their efficacy, but the results are undeniable. By treating drugs like the individual choices they are and addictions as public health problems, one country in Europe has won the war. This country has much to learn from Portugal.
* Jenny Grimberg is a graduate student in applied economics at Georgetown University.
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