Filed under: Drug Politics
It is still less than 100 years that the illegalization of drugs has been the way things are. Prior to 1914 (or thereabouts) criminal sanctions were not applied to people who used, or sold, the substances we’ve come to call “street drugs”. What is incredible about the relative recentness of the criminalized prohibition of drugs is how quickly it came to reside in the mind of the public as if it were an absolute eternal fact of life for a proper and good society. People don’t see prohibition of drugs as some sort of arbitrary (and relatively new) societal feature, they generally regard drug prohibition with a strong internalized approval and commitment to things the way things are and should be; as if drug prohibition is an essential component of a good society. Why therefore question something that is so obviously correct?
Of course, most good citizens have given little consideration to drug prohibition in any real evaluative sense. But of course, that’s just fine because why should one bother to evaluatively consider something which is so clearly the right thing for society to be committed to. Of course drugs should be illegal! And that’s that! Indeed it is truly amazing (and just a tad bit frightening) that good citizens feel such a strong conviction in something they really haven’t thought much about at all. But that’s where things are at. Most good citizens think drugs should obviously remain illegal because they’re bad and society would go to hell in a drug-crazed handbasket if drugs don’t remain illegal.
So how to dissuade the good citizens from their commitment to drug prohibition?
No one wants to see individuals, let alone society itself, messed up on drugs. But more, and more, that’s what we’re seeing. And therefore, some folks might get to questioning whether the drug prohibition efforts are actually worthwhile – after all, drug-related problems seem to be increasing in a context of drug prohibition. One the other hand, other folks might conclude that society simply isn’t being vigilant enough in its war on drugs, and figure we need another multi-billion dollar surge in the war effort in order to get the job done (i.e. “lock up all ’em druggies”).
Luckily whole hearted commitment to the war on drugs is not as universal as some powers that be would have us believe. One fine example is Portugal. Portugal began a societal experiment in drug decriminalization in 2001. We didn’t read about this in front page headlines the way we read about drug gang murders in Mexico, but what’s happened in Portugal as a result of drug decriminalization is pretty darn significant nonetheless. Other countries such as Spain, Italy, Brazil are following suit, and many others are giving serious consideration to a rethink regarding drug prohibition.
In Portugal when users are seen with drugs they are no longer persued by the police with an intention to convict and incarcerate them. That big stick approach has been rejected and replaced by an extended helping hand. I get a hoot out of what they call the body which now administers society’s response to users – they call it the “Dissuasion Commission“. The idea is to dissuade users from continuing with problematic drug use and to encourage them to try alternative routes. Whether they do or not is up to the user. They aren’t penatalized if they don’t accept assistance, but rather they are let free to continue learning lessons the hard way – with the offer of help always available.
One thing that advocates of this decriminalized approach really emphasize is that by taking the police and courts and prisons out of the equation, Portugal has freed up a whole lot of money which it now puts into treatment options and counsellors. And they really mean treatment options and good counsellors. In North America, treatment and counsellors are like after thoughts, once the vast majority of expenditure is made on police and prisons. So obviously the quality of treatment and counsellors is equivalent, as the saying goes, to what you pay for. Just think what would be possible if hundreds of millions were being spent on an emphasis upon great and thorough treatment opportunities, rather than just a couple million here and there if there’s any $$$$ left over after re-equipping the tactical take down squad?
Last week, when returning home from scoring in the big city, I found myself listening to an excellent interview on the car radio. It was during a segment called Portugal Drug Decriminalization on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Current radio program. There is an interview with a man whose been a member of the Dissuasion Commission ever since its inception in 2001. He very eloquently emphasizes how different things are in Portugal now that the money that used to go to cops and jailers now goes to treatment and counsellors. That change in emphasis is extremely significant and it really deserves to be considered in terms of the possibilities that would be freed up in light of such a transformation. And, as a matter of fact, the positive proof is in the pudding to such an extent that even Time Magazine has taken note.
Do yourself a favour and tune into some good news: defintely listen to Part 3 on Portugal Drug Decriminalization.
And then if you want to really study up on the story, visit the American think-tank The Cato Institute website and download a 34 page .pdf entitled Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies (download link)