Don't Hold Your Breath

Since the war on drugs began, back in the Reagan era, the cost of maintaining said war has risen out of all proportion. Billions of dollars have been spent since the seventies resulting in such a pandemic of drug use and abuse, that one would be forgiven for thinking that the “war on drugs” has actually been the very thing that created the problem, given that the long running campaign to rid the world of harmful drugs, has actually resulted in an opposite effect. Its current grip on vast tracts of the global population, along with not so harmful drugs, more specifically marijuana, appears to be keeping pace with the billions to fight it.

The USA says cannabis is a dangerous drug and it’s wide spread use certainly keeps the private prisons that are spreading around the world, nicely stocked with a steady supply of puffers and small time dealers who make up the bulk of prison inmates in American prisons, along with illegal aliens awaiting deportation. With a private prison system looking to increase productivity the millions of drug offenders, in particular the marijuana smokers, who are in general, easy to control, given they are soft criminals, as opposed to the hardened variety, are a godsend to the prison operators, quite literally. It’s easy money, and if you can catch them 3 times, you can lock them up forever at the expense of the American tax payers who will have to support them for many years to come, to the tune of several billions of dollars.

I don’t think it’s hard to figure out why America has the largest prison population per capita of any country on the planet and its easy to see why given the prison service is a business first and a public service second. Productivity is the name of the game and like any business, it has to make a good return to its stock holders so productivity, or more prisoners, is the name of the game.

There is no way that one could put cannabis into the same category as heroin or cocaine but it is the most persecuted by the authorities, perhaps because it is the most commonly used. Those that get locked up for it are not criminals, for the most part, but recreational drug users that do not belong in criminal institutions. There is no denying that there is a drug problem and it is worldwide but it is not one that can be solved employing current practices otherwise, given the billions spent to date on policing the drug trade and locking up those that offend, we should have solved the problem by now.

Clearly it is not solvable using the heavy-handed methods favoured by the American government and as such all governments of the world, with one significant exception, that exception being the tiny country of Portugal. They, like so many other countries, suffered a huge drug abuse problem that threatened the very fabric of Portuguese society. Clearly, locking offenders up for long periods of time was not helping the problem and the prison population, as in many other countries, was bulging with drug use offenders whose incarceration was paid for by the taxes of hard working Portuguese. A solution had to be found.

Back in 2001 with a growing number of deaths and cases of HIV linked to drug abuse, the Portuguese government, in desperation, decided to try a new and controversial tack to try and get a handle on the problem. Seeing no other solution and clutching at straws they bravely decriminalized the use and possession of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, LSD and other illicit street drugs deciding to focus on treatment and prevention instead of jailing users in the hope that it would decrease the number of deaths and attendant infections through using dirty needles. Using was decriminalized but dealing remained a criminal offence. Slowly but surely the scheme seemed to be working as drug-related crime and infections began to slide and the cost of keeping offenders in jail or hospitalized decreased by leaps and bounds, much to the delight of the authorities and tax payers.

By 2006, the number of deaths from street drug overdoses dropped from around 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. To date those numbers of hard drug users are steadily decreasing to even lower figures and Portugal is enjoying the benefits of safer streets and hardly any drug-related crimes compared to pre-2001.

When it was first suggested, as was expected, the idea had its critics who took the view that such a relaxed attitude to drug use would result in Portugal, in particular Lisbon becoming a drug Mecca for European junkies. However, as things turned out, that particular fear was unfounded and drug decriminalization did reach its primary goal and proved eminently successful in reducing the health consequences of drug use and further more, did not lead to Lisbon becoming a drug tourist destination, as the critics predicted.

Holland has long had a relaxed attitude to personal use of drugs of every description and drug abuse there is far lower than the rest of Europe despite the ease of availability. That has to be a clue. According to Joao Castel-Branco Goulao, Portugual's "drug czar" and president of the Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction, “The impact in the life of families and our society is much lower than it was before decriminalization," adding that the police are now able to re-focus on tracking much higher level dealers and larger quantities of drugs.

Clearly, “prevention is better than cure”, but let’s not rule out curing our problematic drug abusers. As the Portuguese experiment has admirably shown it has proven to be eminently effective and an example to the rest of the world, particularly the USA who are still ignoring the success of the Portuguese example. I suppose business is business and a body in jail is a buck in the bank to them so we won’t hold our breath.

When asked by a journalist from Scientific American what they thought of the report on Portugal the spokesperson for the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy declined to comment, citing the pending Senate confirmation of the office's new director, former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs also declined to comment on the report. Like I said, ‘Don’t hold your breath’

~Sean Casey

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