In The Wire (perhaps the best television program ever), a rogue Baltimore police major essentially legalizes drugs in certain parts of his district. The result: crime falls, public health agencies start treating drug addicts and offering preventive care/education, the police focus on serious crimes, and the accolades roll in from the public.
In the real world, drug legalization is about as popular with public officials as vegetables are with 4 year olds! But a few bold experiments with decriminalization have taken place, including one in Portugal that began in 2001. What have been the results? As the Boston Globe explains:
Faced with both a public health crisis and a public relations disaster, Portugal’s elected officials took a bold step. They decided to decriminalize the possession of all illicit drugs — from marijuana to heroin — but continue to impose criminal sanctions on distribution and trafficking. The goal: easing the burden on the nation’s criminal justice system and improving the people’s overall health by treating addiction as an illness, not a crime.
As the sweeping reforms went into effect nine years ago, some in Portugal prepared themselves for the worst. They worried that the country would become a junkie nirvana, that many neighborhoods would soon resemble Casal Ventoso, and that tourists would come to Portugal for one reason only: to get high.
But nearly a decade later, there’s evidence that Portugal’s great drug experiment not only didn’t blow up in its face; it may have actually worked. More addicts are in treatment. Drug use among youths has declined in recent years. Life in Casal Ventoso, Lisbon’s troubled neighborhood, has improved.
As one might expect, not everything has been rosy:
The number of Portuguese aged 15 to 64 who have ever tried illegal drugs has climbed from 7.8 percent in 2001 to 12 percent in 2007.
Despite the down side (assuming that such experimentation is a down side), the Portuguese approach looks like a positive improvement over the current American drug policy regime. As you might expect, the Cato Institute has been following this case too. Here is a “White Paper” by Glenn Greenwald on Portugal’s experiment; it contains a lot of interesting data worth examining.