Opinion: America should adopt Portugal’s drug policy

Dylan Webb is a teaching English as a second language major. Contact him at [email protected].

Dylan Webb

It’s obvious that in today’s “Drug War”, the legal effort is ineffective and even counter-productive. The number of drug-related deaths is increasing; more and more people are being processed in the legal system, ending up in jail or prison every day.

However, Portugal has taken a different stance. Since 2001, Portugal works under a decriminalization policy which allows those with small amounts of common illegal street drugs to be given a penalty similar to a traffic violation, rather than facing jail time or expensive fines. According to the law, the specifics for the types and amounts of drugs people can be caught with include “one gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, 25 grams of marijuana leaves or five grams of hashish.”

After the person is stopped with their first drug charge within these amounts of drugs, the user is required to go to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser for appropriate treatment. Through these means, the first-time offender bypasses the prison system, thus avoiding the painful and possibly deadly effects of withdrawal.

The decriminalization policy of Portugal has produced many benefits: not only decreasing the number of inmates incarcerated for the disease of addiction, but the most obvious benefit is saving lives that would have been lost due to overdose or drug-related accidents. In fact, the rate of overdoses in Portugal has decreased by a quarter and the spread of diseases by sharing of needles is a third of what it was before 2001.

According to the Scientific American, one of the most important results of the decriminalization policy is that it is saving lives—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.

The current American policy with illegal drugs is to impose harsh punishments, including jail time, fines and criminal records—all of which make it nearly impossible to survive or be financially competent in American society. This policy not only does not aim at the roots of the problem of addiction.

For example, in the case of Nancy M. Brown, who died in an Ashtabula jail when prison staff ignored her seizures. She was suffering from severe heroin withdrawal, according to her lawyer Robert Biales. “She told them on more than one occasion that she thought she was dying, and that she was having a heart attack. She repeatedly asked for appropriate medical attention but was ignored,” Biales said.

With criminalization, addicts could possibly associate sobriety with jail, and the freedom on the outside with drugs. This creates a negative association with sobriety and well-being. The nightmarish jail environment is the worst way to get convicts who are addicted to eventually want to be clean. No one is scared straight, but scared mad. What better way to prevent death and by giving addicts not only a fair warning that the path they are going down will lead to no good and give them the needed resources to live a clean, healthy and fulfilled life?

 Dylan Webb is an opinion columnist for the Kent Stater. For more information contact him at [email protected]