By Amiea Eleban

It’s never our policy to tell you what to do

only show you something new and let you decide on your own. Since Oklahoma has legalized cannabis for medical use, law enforcement has stepped up canna arrests as well. Arrests for other drugs are not on the decline and pain patients are committing suicide nationwide at an alarming rate. Have we won the ‘war on drugs’? Was there a war in the first place? Or is this an effort to keep the privatizing prison system profitable?

One country decided to take a big risk against their own drug problem by reversing direction entirely.

Portugal had a tough criminal stance against drugs until 2000. They decided that on July 1, 2001 they would legalize everything, not only cannabis. The new policies:

  1. Reduce HIV/AIDS cases by giving out clean needles, educate public on the spread of HIV through open communication and offer treatment if wanted instead of incarceration.
  2. Reduce crime by offering addicts treatment programs instead of jail time and costs of parole programs. It was costly to the general public to use law enforcement to chase addicts down.
  3. Portugal put all treatment programs into one comprehensive unit overseeing the units that would help addiction recovery as well as follow-up.
  4. New laws allowed for ticketing for anyone caught with a 10-day supply of drugs (or less) with little punishment, but big problems for anyone thought to be a dealer. This keeps drug dealing to a minimum.
  5. Portugal expanded their drug treatment instead of expanding their prison system.

What all of this did was change perceptions among non-users and it offered an alternative to a tough stint in the prison system (where drugs were available with a high risk of becoming well-acclimated) and it reduced crimes like theft, pickpocketing and prostitution, which was spreading HIV and AIDS.

Is it perfect?

No, of course not. But it has helped many people get help if they want it. The number of people in drug treatment went from 6,000 in 2000 to almost 26,000 by 2008. It has put heroin users onto methadone or buprenorphine, it has helped people to get off drugs entirely and reduced crime. It has radically reduced the number of new HIV/AIDS cases in Portugal, especially those who unwittingly engage in sexual activity with someone who uses dirty needles.

For those who are caught violating drug laws, they appear before a social worker, a psychiatrist and an attorney. A set of sanctions are created to punish the drug offender based on the user’s income, number of offenses and other factors:

  • Fines, can be community service or financial fines
  • Bans on right to practice their profession
  • Bans to visit certain places (like clubs, certain people)
  • Foreign travel bans
  • Requirement to report back to the committee regularly
  • Removal of offender’s personal possessions, loss of right to carry a gun
  • Loss of public assistance if the person receives it
  • If addiction is suspected, the offender will be required to attend rehab or perform community service, but rehab cannot be forced.

Will these efforts work in the U.S.?

We don’t know. What we do know is that there are prison systems that are growing bigger to accommodate people who are ‘not learning their lesson’ via the criminal justice system, yet we keep returning to it. Addiction is a psychological problem. We treat alcohol addiction with compassion, why are drug addicts treated with contempt? The legality of it should have no bearing on how we treat the addicts who fight their demons every day.

But, maybe we should learn about the drugs we have such contempt for before we start such a program. You can’t fire a gun if you can’t take the safety off.


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