The following Op Ed piece, by Howard Weissman, Executive Director of National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse — St. Louis Area, appeared in print and online versions of the August 5, 2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was written in response to a recent editorial calling for the decriminalization of all drugs.
The Myth of Portugal's Drug Policy
A recent Post-Dispatch editorial ("Sentencing reform is fine. Decriminalizing drugs would be better," July 24) advocated the broad decriminalization of drugs in America, including heroin and cocaine. It emphasized the experience of Portugal, where a shift to decriminalization that began in 2001 appears to have been positive.
The editorial noted that "... public policy based on myths doesn't work," which is clearly true. But reporting the "success" of Portugal is a bit of myth, too.
For example, the paper quoted misleading references in a 2009 report on Portugal by the libertarian Cato Institute. The Cato report concluded that "... drug usage in many categories has actually decreased when measured in absolute terms, whereas usage in other categories has increased only slightly or mildly." The implication: Eliminating criminal penalties for drug use did not produce the increased drug use predicted by opponents of decriminalization.
However, a more rigorous analysis published last year in Law and Social Inquiry, the journal of the American Bar Foundation, found no evidence that Portugal actually changed its enforcement approach after the "radical decriminalization," as Cato put it, of 2001. Examining the eight-year period prior to decriminalization, the Bar Foundation's journal reported that the average number of people in Portuguese prisons for simple drug possession was about 21. Not 21%, but 21 people out of 10 million. That's .00021 percent – effectively zero.
In other words, when Portugal eliminated incarceration as a penalty, it didn't change anything; it merely formalized the criminal justice policy it already had.
I agree with the editorial's view that we must shift our emphasis from incarceration to treatment and prevention. As young people across the St. Louis region die at the rate of one per day from heroin and the illegal use of prescription opioids, law enforcement agencies are recognizing that they cannot arrest their way out of the drug problems plaguing our communities.
That said, we must, as the editorial noted, "try something different." The United States, with five percent of the world's population, consumes 80 percent of the drugs — 90 percent of all opiates. We are a country consumed with consumption, and until we begin to treat substance use disorders as a public health emergency equal to or greater than, say, the obesity epidemic, overdoses will continue to kill more of our young people than automobile accidents, and addiction will continue to be America's most expensive problem.
The recent Post-Dispatch editorial observes, accurately, that Richard Nixon's 1971 War on Drugs has been a failure. But it's worth remembering that Nixon declared TWO wars in 1971: the war on drugs and the war on cancer. We have not prevailed in either, but we have learned that prevention is the most effective way to address both problems, medically and economically.
If we are going to seriously address the drug problem in our region and in our country, we must get serious about substance abuse prevention programming. For the cost of housing 175 inmates in one prison for one year, we could provide research-informed, effective, multi-week programming for every student in every grade in every classroom in every school in the entire St. Louis region. In a single generation, this shift in spending would drastically reduce the demand for illegal drugs and alcohol.
Yes, instead of incarcerating drug users, we need to offer treatment, more and better and sustained treatment. And current drug laws are applied disproportionally to people of color, which also must change, along with mandatory minimum sentences.
But we also need to initiate a massive public education/awareness campaign that generates the necessary political will to allocate the resources necessary to get serious about preventing addiction before it takes hold.
Until we address our seemingly insatiable desire to drink and get high, decriminalization of all drugs is just spitting in the wind.
Howard Weissman, Executive Director
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse – St. Louis Area