Monday, April 27, 2009

Decriminalizing Drugs: Should America Consider It?

Portugal decriminalized the personal possession of drugs--pot, coke, heroin and meth--in 2001. Prior to that, the country had one of the highest rates of hard drug use in Europe. Faced with a problem they could not control, Portugal chose instead to try a new approach. Instead of jail time, those found with small amounts of the drugs were offered therapy--which they could refuse with no repercussions.

What do you think happened? The answer might surprise you. According to a Cato Institute report published this month, drug use among teens in Portugal has declined, as did the rate of new HIV infections due to dirty needles. The number of folks seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled. (To read the Time magazine article in its entirety, visit,8599,1893946,00.html.)

This is impressive news no matter how you look at it. Portugal has proven that government can manage the drug problem if it can let go of the need to punish. We're big on punishment here in America. Maybe it goes back to our Puritan roots. I'm not sure we'll ever be able to evolve beyond that need.

But clearly, we are failing miserably--over and over again--in our approach to dealing with drug use. America has the highest rate of marijuana and cocaine use, yet we have the most stringent laws. We fear liberalism so much that we are unwilling to pay attention to the success other parts of the world--mainly the EU--is experiencing with their policies.

Like so many of our national policies, the ones we enforce regarding drugs are based on fear and speculation. We ignore empirical evidence in favor of wild imagination and "what if" scenarios.

Let me be clear: I am not a fan of drugs. I've never smoked pot, popped pills, tripped on acid, or taken anything stronger than an alcoholic drink. Drugs do not interest or fascinate me. My brother's drug use informed my childhood, and I believe it played a large role in the breakup of my parents' already dysfunctional marriage, and hence, our family. If anyone could be the Anita Bryant of the drug issue, it's me.

But I'm not in the majority. Most people experiment with one drug or another at some point in their lives. Many continue to use if not regularly, at least sporadically. Recreational drug use is an integral part of modern society, and like it or not, we must find a way to deal with it so that it ceases to be a major health and safety concern. Portugal seems to have stumbled on to something that works.

There is a segment of the American population that holds the attitude that drugs are bad and must be gotten rid of, and anything less is unacceptable. We've tried this; it isn't working. I agree they're a health hazard, but I'm a realist and know they will never be gotten rid of. Our punitive response to drug use has at least proven that: Regardless of how we view any and all drug use, it is never going to disappear. Drugs are here to stay, and we can either seek effective methods of management and semi-control, or we can continue to let the problem spiral downward, taking more and more of our friends and family with it. Portugal understands this; why can't America?

When the taboo of something has been lifted, common sense says more people will participate. The taboo of drug use is not what it once was. More people are more open about their use. The world has changed. We must find a way to work with the change because society will never revert to what it once was. Conditions and attitudes will never regress. We are where we are, and we have to work with that and stop trying to move backward.

Yet here we are, banging our heads against the wall because we can't seem to get a handle on things. But we keep trudging along the same path. Don't know who said it, but the quotation "When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail" comes to mind. We have hammered away at the drug problem long enough, with pathetic results. It's time to take a new approach, come up with a strategy based on the desire for true impact, not punishment of the "wicked."

More than one million nonviolent drug users are behind bars. I don't call this progress. I hope you don't either.