Strange bedfellows: CATO and Glenn Greenwald team up to analyze drug decriminalization in Portugal

One of the standard arguments against drug legalization or decriminalization is that it will cause drug use to skyrocket. This notion, however, takes a major body blow when we look at Portugal, which in 2001 became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

The question is, does the new policy work? At the time, critics in the poor, socially conservative and largely Catholic nation said decriminalizing drug possession would open the country to “drug tourists” and exacerbate Portugal’s drug problem; the country had some of the highest levels of hard-drug use in Europe. But the recently released results of a report commissioned by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, suggest otherwise.

Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half. In addition, the number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment as well.

The author of the CATO report? Known sock-puppeteer Glenn Greenwald.

I’m not going to say that decriminalization of drugs in the United States will definitely cause usage to drop. But I do think that this is definite and solid evidence that decriminalization will not cause usage to skyrocket, like most critics claim. I also think that decriminalization will give us fewer long-term drug addicts, because more people will be willing to admit they have a problem and seek treatment.

Personally, I want to see the federal government get out of the drug war business. We have 50 states for a reason: individual states can try things, and if they go wrong, just that state is affected, but if they go right, then other states can follow suit. This whole federalism process, however, is stifled or shut down entirely when the federal government steps in and makes rules for everyone. To me, federal drug laws make about as much sense and do about as much good as the old federal 55mph speed limit: impossible to enforce, leading to selective enforcement, corruption, and general disrespect of the law in general. We’re better off getting the federal government out of as many things as possible, including drug law.