Drug Abuse: Crime or Sickness?


While growing up, hearing there’s a “war on drugs” has always felt as normal as breathing. Addiction to drugs has been an ongoing thing and has long since been classified as a global problem. I mean, having lodged themselves into every pocket of the world, undoubtedly, it has affected every nation worldwide with its inevitable reach. In Portugal in 2001, they made history by decriminalizing drug use. You see, while countries like the US were viciously coming down on drugs and their users and spending billions to do this, Portugal began treating their drug users with no legal repercussions, where other places it could have led to a life behind bars. Despite Portugal being in the vice grip of AIDS and heroin at the time, the government opted for the direction of new and innovative ways to bring aid to their citizens who were drug addicts. This was called the Portugal Experiment.  


The July 2001 decision to “officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs,” including methamphetamines, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana; termed the Portugal Experiment, it was the country’s solution to an insane drug problem. According to the platform Transform, “Possessing drugs for personal use is instead treated as an administrative offense, meaning it is no longer punishable by imprisonment and does not result in a criminal record and associated stigma. Drugs are, however, still confiscated and possession may result in administrative penalties such as fines or community service.” Though, let it be known that Portugal wasn’t the first to decriminalize some or all drugs. In decriminalizing private and public use and the acquisition and possession of all drugs, they were steered into adopting a public health approach as opposed to one that is laced with public-order priorities. 


Although all illicit drugs in Portugal have been made legal, the green light for free reign drug use hasn’t been absolute. You see, following the passage of Law 30/2000, all cases of consumption, purchase, or possession of up to a ten days supply of an illicit drug are handed over to an administrative panel called the Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction (CDTs), which makes recommendations for treatment, fines, warnings, or other penalties. Now, however, in terms of Trafficking and cultivation of illicit substances, this as well as the possession of quantities exceeding a ten day supply, are in fact deemed and remain criminal offenses. “Citizens found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs (no more than a 10-day supply of the given substance) were sent to a panel made up of a psychologist, a social worker, and a legal advisor, who would then devise an appropriate treatment plan. The citizen in question would be given the right to refuse to accept the decision of the panel without criminal punishment”, writes Desert Hope Treatment Center concluding that “Jail would not be part of the arrangement.” Basically, it supports not only keeping people out of prison but it has also significantly reduced stigma, discrimination, and health harms. To note, according to the Portuguese Model for Decriminalization, “Individuals can also be sent to the Commissions by the courts when they are caught with more than the maximum amount of drugs allowed if the prosecutor or the judge decides that these drugs were destined for personal use and not for intent to supply.” In ‘accepting the reality of drug use rather than wishing and hoping that it will disappear as a result of ruling or controlling people by the use of force or violence, or by laws that put unreasonable limits on their freedom, Portuguese reform allows drugs to be treated as a health issue as opposed to one that is a criminal justice issue. The benefits of these reforms, therefore, arise from both decriminalization itself and establishing a wider health-based response to drug problems. In the defense of Dr. João Castel-Branco Goulão, one of the architects of Portugal’s drug policy, “If addiction is a disease, then why arrest sick people?” 


Now, Glenn Greenwald, who just so happens to be a former lawyer, New York Times bestselling author, and renowned journalist and political commentator, thinks of Portugal’s experiment across the board as “an unquestionable success.” With its focus on medical treatment and not punishment, he’s a firm believer that Portugal has kept a steady hand in the right direction where the country’s drug problem is concerned. On the decades-long “War on Drugs” Greenwald says it is “one of many “criminalization approaches” that are “abject failures,” because they exacerbate problems instead of properly addressing them.” 


Now, while Portugal has adopted their mode of combatting the war on drugs, other parts of the world make it no walk in the park where offender repercussions are concerned. With data from Desert Hope Treatment, research has proven that “Muslim countries, or nations governed by secular authoritarian regimes, are the worst places to be caught possessing even the smallest amounts of drugs, even if there was no intention to distribute.” In the mix of worst countries to violate the drug law, Asian nations have to be mentioned. In Malaysia, “the death penalty for drug traffickers; and under Malaysian law, anything from half an ounce of heroin to a few ounces of marijuana makes a suspect a trafficker. People who test positive for drugs are automatically sentenced to a year of compulsory treatment.” Then there’s Singapore, whose laws are touted as some of the toughest across the world and state that “Possessing small amounts of drugs can lead to a jail sentence of 10 years and fines worth tens of thousands of dollars. Having enough of certain amounts of drugs (such as 2 grams of heroin, or 15 grams of cannabis) is grounds for being automatically presumed by law to be trafficking. People caught with higher amounts (15 grams or more of heroin, 500 grams or more of cannabis) will be subject to a mandatory death penalty.” Then, in Vietnam, “A person caught taking illicit substances could be sent to “rehabilitation,” a euphemism for forced labor and near starvation. Unlike Singapore and Malaysia, Vietnam distinguishes between casual drug use and smuggling, but the difference doesn’t offer a great deal of comfort: Casual drug users can be forcibly sent to treatment centers, where the “treatment” consists of severe discipline that borders on torture. Persons caught with small amounts of heroin or other narcotics can still be sentenced to death.” Last on our list is Saudi Arabia, which partakes in the practice of Wahhabist Islam which means that visitors can expect to find no bars or liquor stores in the country. Therefore, “visitors are also forbidden from bringing any kind of drugs into the Middle Eastern nation. Anyone caught using drugs by the infamous religious police can be sent to jail, publicly flogged, and deported. Drug traffickers can be executed by hanging.”


So, did the Portuguese solution work? Did the Portugal Experiment yield any fruits? Well, according to data from the Portuguese Model for Decriminalization, “decriminalization led to a reduction in prison overcrowding – with the proportion of drug offenders in prison dropping from 44% in 1999 to 19.6% in 2013. The policy also enabled law enforcement authorities to target violent, high-level traffickers and organized crime groups, instead of focusing on users and low-level dealers.” Sounds like a win to us.


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