Drugs. The press publishes regularly about cartels or gangs that have killed over control of the various substances they traffic and their smuggling routes. But these images and stories have overshadowed one type of drug, the legal types, namely those that are prescribed. The illegal use of legal drugs has lead to opioid crises in countries like the USA and the UK. Most Governments take a punitive approach to combating the drugs embodied in the global “war on drugs” launched during the Nixon era, others, like the Portuguese government, took a different path and moved to decriminalize drugs in 2001.
Just how bad is the current drug situation?
Current war on drugs landscape
The current landscape in countries where drug use leads to criminal prosecution continues to rise. In parallel, more and more people take drugs and die from an overdose. As an example, let’s start off with the USA. Here is a snapshot of drug and opioid deaths in the USA since 1999:
When making a visual inspection, the maps tend towards darker and darker colours in different locales. West Virginia has 6 counties reporting the highest death rate nationwide:
The maps only tell part of the story. The other part of the story deals with the violence caused by the illegal drug trade. Cartels or other gangs control the sale and distribution of these drugs on the black market. The media regularly publishes stories from Mexico’s northern states near the US border. In each of these stories civilians, gang members, or law enforcement officials are killed. The situation seems rather grim. Unfortunately, across the pond, the UK faces a similar drug problem.
The UK has the highest drug rate use across Europe with 6.7 out of 1,000 deemed problem drug users, and 3.3 per cent of the population aged 15–64 admitting they used heroin or cocaine. The norm in Europe rests at about 0.5 per cent with 1.9 per cent in France. A report in 2016 showed that 3,744 people died from drug overdose in the UK.
The statistics seem insignificant when looked at individually. But, the above examples are not the only two that are worth looking at. Let’s consider taking a global view presents an alarming situation.
Decriminalization in Portugal — a case study
Portugal decriminalised drugs in 2001 meaning that all drugs are now legal. The overall effect has been positive with deaths from overdose at approximately 3 deaths per 1,000,000 people in Portugal per year from the about 369 deaths in 1999. In addition, to the reduction in overdose induced deaths, a decline in HIV cases has followed. In 2000, there were 104.2 cases per million which has since dropped to 4.2 per million in 2015. Another important statistic is the reduction in legal highs or using spice which is a synthetic substance — levels are lowest in Portugal when compared to other countries.
These statistics are remarkable as they represent an improvement for society including a reduced burden to the Portuguese healthcare system. Now, it could be argued that these statistics alone should motivate a country to proceed with decriminalisation. But, it takes a little more than that. Arguably, the most important aspect of making drug decriminalisation successful is a major cultural shift in attitude towards drugs and the overall way society functions.
This shift in attitude comprises of a health system change and societal changes. The healthcare system makes treatment more available. In parallel to the health system change, two more societal changes followed like programmes aimed at re-integrating drug users back into society and an introduction of a minimum wage. As a combined health and social reform, these policy changes prepared society to manage and accept drug users in a more optimal way.
Such a policy perform has driven the necessary changes to compliment drug decriminalisation itself. One cannot decriminalise without preparing society and providing the necessary means for drug users to seek help. Of course, drug regulation may become a crucial factor, so Government need to enact policies where it can gain tax revenue from the sale and distribution of legalised drugs — just like alcohol.
Uruguay: pioneering legal marijuana
Another country that has introduced decriminalised and introduced a protection framework is Uruguay. While Portugal was successful in decriminalisation, Uruguay took it one step further with a broader, more comprehensive reform effectively legalising marijuana for retail sale. In this framework, pharmacies became legal dealers that can provide consumers with up to 10g of the substance per week. One of the prominent features in this law is citizens’ registration with the Government.
The Government wanted to prevent a ‘free for all’ by requiring some registration system where only seven people in the Uruguayan Government have access. Furthermore, officials have restricted the supply to only three use cases — medical use, private cultivation, or in a cannabis club that cultivates the drug. In all three use cases, a citizen must register for a permit. For example, a home grower requires a permit and can only cultivate up to six plants per household.
While these measures remain relatively constrictive and have faced criticism, the country remains at the forefront of combatting the war on drugs. Naturally, proceeding with caution and being overly cautious could create frustration from advocates. However, the new process is very delicate to ensure sensitive data or drugs don’t end up back in the very hands from whom the Government wants to take the drugs away. This aims to lower organised crime and reduce the overall amount of convictions for personal possession.
Decriminalization's relief to the justice system
Whether one examines Portugal, Uruguay or any other country that has pursued some form of decriminalisation, it has lifted an undue burden to the justice system. For example, legal highs through spice use remains a crucial problem in UK prisons. Dr. Stephanie Sharp, forensic pharmacologist, advocates for providing prisoners the real deal, because it reduces fatalities. She goes on to argue that all drugs should be legalised, and that real marijuana is safer than an artificial substance.
In addition to the burden on the prison system, the rest of the justice system ranging from police to magistrates to the jury (if applicable) have to participate in the trial. Naturally, each actor pays in time or financially. The taxpayer pays for the trial, for the prisoner’s time in prison, and for the prison to maintain a humane environment that is adequately staffed. The below chart shows the associated costs per prisoner per day within Europe:
Naturally, the cost for some countries remains less than others. But, the long-run proves expensive as more and more prisoners occupy the prison. This has not stopped Governments from continuing drug enforcement policies. Taking it one step further, there might there be a political case for which Governments wish not to pursue decriminalisation.
The Political case against decriminalization
The war on drugs often serves as a political platform from which one can argue that illegal drugs lead to terrorism, violent immigrants, or corruption. Two leaders that come to mind are US President Trump and Philippine President Duterte. Both men have employed the police and combative measures for fighting the war on drugs.
President Trump’s approach centres around ramping up law enforcement and advocating the death penalty for drug dealers. In addition, he also began bombing drug labs in Afghanistan owned by the Taliban. President Duterte’s approach to drugs is more extreme by ordering extrajudicial killings claiming more than 12,000 lives. Both of these approaches are shows of strength and claim to be effective methods.
In either case, one could argue that both approaches advance political agendas. In Trump’s case, it could be the war on terrorism and illegal immigration masked by the war on drugs. In Duterte’s case, it can be ridding the country of corruption and undesirables. Both approaches have lead to more killing, more criticism from UN observers, and the continued proliferation of drugs.
The war on drugs is a complex matter mostly driven by political agendas. The case for decriminalization is strong given the successes in Portugal and Uruguay.
What’s more important is understanding the cultural shift and policy changes needed to successfully decriminalize drugs. Society needs fair warning and the tools to manage drug use including rehabilitation for those who need to re-integrate back to society.
Time will tell if more countries begin to advocate for broader decriminalization. Those who have not yet may continue to wage the losing war on drugs with more prisoners in jail or more deceased as they are caught in the crossfire.
The question of decriminalization should be left to the people to decide and the Government to act based on that decision.