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Decriminalizing Drug Use in Portugal: 5 Years Later

While people in the United States endlessly debate what should be done with the country's drug problem, Portugal went ahead and decriminalize the use and possession of illicit drugs 5 years ago.

Here's what the country learned:

In the face of a growing number of deaths and cases of HIV linked to drug abuse, the Portuguese government in 2001 tried a new tack to get a handle on the problem—it decriminalized the use and possession of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, LSD and other illicit street drugs. The theory: focusing on treatment and prevention instead of jailing users would decrease the number of deaths and infections.

Five years later, the number of deaths from street drug overdoses dropped from around 400 to 290 annually, and the number of new HIV cases caused by using dirty needles to inject heroin, cocaine and other illegal substances plummeted from nearly 1,400 in 2000 to about 400 in 2006, according to a report released recently by the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C, libertarian think tank.

Brian Vastag of Scientific American has more on the story: Link

Since when has policy been based on evidence? I bet Portugal retraces its steps within a decade under pressure from the "something must be done" brigade.
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the response from the establishment is the only thing that will be remarkable about this.

Portugal is an immigrant heavy, highly religious and recently prosperous country. it's the latest in the American dream.

i can't imagine what it would be like if we legalized, regulated and taxed drugs.

wait, i can. it would be better, much better than our currently failed system.
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This is cherry picking evidence. One has to look at the whole picture.

Nobody dies of cigarette overdose but they cause numerous deaths every year and cost our health care system a fortune.
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The Non Hippie - There is actually some evidence (a Dutch study) that smokers cost the health system less than non-smokers because of how much people cost in their last ten years of life. Smokers generally die before they get really expensive.

And before anyone says anything; I don't smoke and plan to get REALLY expensive before I go.
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People who have been involved in the so called war on drugs in the US have seen that the currant system does not work. You arrest a dealer, and another one just takes his place. History has shown that prohibition does not work, there will always be people to take advantage of it. Education regarding drugs and abuse of must also be based on truth and knowledge, not fear and avoidance.
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Nobody dies of cigarette overdoeses?

How about the kids who eat cigarette butts? Nicotene is very poisonous.

The irony that we thought proabition was a bad idea (pardon my spelling) and yet sill criminialzie drugs is one that make me laugh, frankly.

Hypocracy is alive and well.
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If you look at the drug trade, then yes, the War On Drugs has been and is an expensive failure.

But maybe stopping the drug trade is not the only motivation in keeping it going.

It may not be the primary motivation at all.
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Pretty thin study. Neutral on the issue overall, but looks like a typical study trying to drive an agenda.

No mention of crime rate impact over the same time period?

No mention of public life impact (anyone want to take a stroll through the heroin den public parks in Switzerland?) over the same period?

Again, I'm neutral on the issue. Would be nice to see a balanced study that looks at the issue through other lenses.
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well... i think that the crime issue is not as much of an issue when the drugs move from the back allies to stores and homes. And the overall health thing... use does not go higher and the ones that use are thats also all good. and the heroin dens spoken of...also not too bad since the people are not sick, dont steal and rob and get clean H... most of them actually get back to work and theyr lives after a period.... EVERYTHING is better if the prohibition ends.
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Wha? Common These are crazy times.

It seems the usual anti-legalization angle uses the notion that decriminalization would increase drug use, like the argument that providing condoms and sex education would encourage the kids to have more sex.

The basic misconception has always seemed, to me, to be that outside forces have much to do with people's choices when it comes to drugs and other risky endeavors. It doesn't. People that want to use drugs will, those that don't won't.

The relevant question is just, what do you do with those who will, no matter what, use drugs? Punish them and keep their behavior marginalized so that it remains unsafe, or acknowledge reality and try to prevent additional harms like infections and overdoses (and jail time, which is a really weird way of saying "we care about your health").

I recommend the book Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do, about the absurdity of criminalization of victimless and consensual crime in the U.S. Basic premise is that you can never be successful trying to prevent behavior that potentially hurts only the "perpetrator."

As far as wider-reaching repercussions from drug use ("It's not victimless!!"), most of those are a result of criminalization itself.

But again, common sense not our strong suit around these parts.
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Let's not forget that ALL drugs lie. From heroin and aspirin all the way down to caffeine and sugar. They lie to your body and mind and tell you everything's OK and you're the greatest when, most likely, you're not. The reason most of us today do drugs is to escape the truth. We get high either recreationally or because we can't handle what is actualy happening in our lives.
Why not educate ourselves to be able to accept, handle and work with our situation in life. It's a human weakness that I think can be eliminated with just a smidge of dicipline.
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Nice to see others coming out in favor of drug decriminalization. Usually I'm alone in my crazy libertarian beliefs but the comments here are encouraging. I don't even use drugs, but ending the drug war just makes good sense for innumerable social and economic reasons.
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@ Non Hippie

I have yet to read all the comments, so excuse if this has been said.

The health care argument fails in this case. To think we already aren't paying for it, is to fool yourself. Legal or not, when drug users need health care, they get it.

Then take into account the amount of money spent on the lost war on drugs. billions and billions every year flushed down the toilet. Enough to pay off any difference in health care, as well as pay for education and rehabilitation.

It's time to stop the madness. Prohibition has proved to be a failure, and has cost us way too many lives.
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Nothing quite like taking care of a major drug abuse problem by telling everyone it's totally ok to fuck themselves over. WTF is wrong with people.
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Here's something to think about: one hundred or so years ago, cocaine and heroin WERE legal in the US, regulated and everything. Now they're not, and there's been no attempt to re-legalize them again. Why?
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If you tell a guy on the street who is clearly drunk to stop drinking? Will he actualy listen? I highly doubt it. He's not going to care and keep doing it if you care or not.
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I have no respect for drug abusers, their attitude and the effect they have on those around them.

A Hidden World Of Addicts In Afghanistan
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(to DanielB)I just want to say that I live in Portugal and actualy it's not that prosperous, not that religious and definately it´s not the lattest in "American Dream", far from it... however I like it a lot, I guess it´s some sort of irrational pride, sad but true:) ... Oh! and by the way, I never had realized that thing with legallized use and possesion of drugs, I always thought it was a normal thing, the use and possesion, I guess i've been distracted from the news...
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I would question the data prepared by a libertarian think tank. If it were more independent, maybe it'd have a little more credibility in this.
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Any increase in drug use will cause an increase in crime. Because the users will need to get the money to use drugs. Or in addition to legalization do you propose giving the drugs away for free?

Also its easy enough to find the statistics on drug use by age. Highest frequency of drug use occurs between 14 and 21 years old. Do we legalize drug use for children? If we dont legalization wont mean much.
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Way to go Portugal. At least some parts of the world are coming to their senses. A LOT of European policy, like their draconian "Sovio-Nazi" anti-firearm laws are ridiculous, but at least they're smarter than us when it comes to drugs.

Prohibition = epic fail. Every time. Drugs do NOT cause crime. It's prohibition itself that creates the underground drug market, run by gangsters and killers. It's prohibition that creates the Al Capones, the Pablo Escobars, the "Tony Montanas", the killers, and the street gangs. What happened to the Italian Mafia? Well, we ended prohibition, they had to switch to petty scams and racketeering, and they eventually died, ceasing to be a nearly invulnerable and politically influential criminal business entity. If drugs were made legal, their market would collapse overnight. Junkies would be able to enter rehab programs where they can work, and be weaned off the drugs in a reasonable fashion, maybe even get some education. Under prohibition, they're too paranoid to come out of the back ally, and have to steal your air-conditioner compressor at night to get a fix. We'd also be able to prevent diseases that get spread by nasty needles (I friggen hate needles, lol). Or, they can just smoke their crack in their $8 motel room. Why should I care? They're going to do it anyway. Better to just let them do it freely, rather than charge me huge taxes to feed and house them in prison. It would even be cheaper to give them some "welfare crack" (even though I hate the socialist welfare system). Producing heroin and coke is cheaper than digging up dirt, literally...

And Richoux, don't be silly. We have laws for cigarettes, alcohol, and firearms. Laws that keep them out of the hands of children (most of the time). There's no reason drugs couldn't be handled the same way. Say what you want, but kids have better access to drugs now than they do to alcohol and tobacco (both of which are legal, while drugs aren't). Why do you never see teenagers selling cigarettes and beer? Because you can buy it in stores for a very low price; it's impractical. The only reason drugs are expensive is because they are illegal. It's simple economics: supply and demand. Even though drugs are quite abundant, major dealers intentionally create scarcity to drive up profits. If I had 2000kg of cocaine, why should I flood the streets all at once to make just $25 a gram, when I can make it scarce and charge 75? That's exactly what they do. They have full control. It's just like deBeers does with diamonds. It costs a coca farmer just 2cents to produce a kilo, which can sell for over $20,000 in parts of the US. It's madness. If they made Twinkies illegal, I promise you that some people would pay well over $100 a box, to taste of the "forbidden pastry". Look at how the EU taxes cigarettes so harshly. They created a black market for tobacco! Even Cuban cigars are expensive here. Why? Because we made them illegal! It's quite obvious where over-regulation leads. Big governments and strict laws never work. Just ask Hitler and Joseph Stalin... oh wait, Hitler is dead (by his own hand), so is Stalin (mysteriously), and the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 80s (so we think)... :/
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