Lisbon is very similar to its sister city, San Francisco—right down to the cable cars and a virtually identical version of the Golden Gate Bridge. However, Portugal has a radically different drug policy than the US. As an attorney who deals with drug policy on a regular basis, I visited Portugal as part of an ongoing effort to study global approaches to the legal issues around drugs. And for as much as Lisbon and San Francisco are similar, the national drug policies governing their home countries couldn’t be more different.
The federal drug policy in the U.S. has been an unmitigated failure and a civil-rights crisis. The so-called war on drugs has led to mass incarceration via the prison industrial complex—a largely privatized, for-profit system rife with cruel and abusive practices. The federal judiciary system, marked by racially disparate and sometimes outright racist sentencing, places millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens at risk of prison, with consequences that can last quite literally for the rest of their lives. We don’t help drug users get better; we shut the door on them.
By contrast, in Portugal, I was able to view firsthand the comparative success the country has seen by taking an entirely different approach. In 2001, in response to a nationwide opioid epidemic (much like the one the U.S. is facing right now,) Portugal took the radical step of decriminalizing all drug use and possession—even for harder drugs like cocaine and heroin. Selling drugs or carrying more than a personal amount remains illegal. Critically, those ticketed for possession are able to avoid the judicial and penal system altogether. Instead, they are provided with mandatory medical treatment and referrals for counseling if needed. Remarkably, the country began treating drugs not as a criminal issue but a medical one.
Portugal provides the most vulnerable addicts with intervention and harm-reduction resources designed to help them overcome their addiction and pursue a productive life, which in turn benefits society as a whole. The results are undeniable:
According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Portugal’s drug-related death rate has dropped to the lowest among any country in the European Union. Drug-related HIV infection, meanwhile, has dropped by 95 percent. Compare this to the U.S., where the system punishes at-risk individuals most harshly. In 2016, more than 60,000 Americans died from drug overdoses; the U.S. drug-related rateis 50 times higher than Portugal’s.
No country’s current drug policy is perfect from a legal standpoint, or is able to completely eliminate addiction. However, Portugal’s approach merits a much stronger look in the U.S. as prohibition fails, (as it always does.) The Portuguese model could help save lives in the U.S., and drastically cut back the exposure of vulnerable individuals to an often-brutal and racially discriminatory criminal justice system.
In fact, the only group that might be truly disadvantaged by the implementation of the Portuguese drug policy in the U.S. is the for-profit prison system. For a civil rights crisis of the magnitude we’re currently dealing with, that hardly seems like a sacrifice.
Jason Beahm is the Founder and President of Beahm Law, a California law firm focused on DUI, criminal defense and personal injury.