The debate on whether or not drugs should be legal has been going on for over a century. If we look back 150 years ago, we can see that the Opium Wars crippled China for many decades. Some argue that there are still parts of China that haven’t even recovered from the epidemic.
We can also look to the morphine and laudanum epidemic that ravaged the United States post-civil war until those drugs became regulated. Finally, we can look at today, where certain states such as Utah and Ohio have incredibly high rates of opium related deaths, compared to other states in America.
In the early 2000s, Portugal decided to decriminalize drugs of all types after two decades of some of the strongest abuse rates in its nation's history. These days, if you are caught being in possession of any drugs, you are either given a warning, a fine, or are told to appear before a local commission.
This local commission is made up of social workers, lawyers, and doctors, who help drug users understand that there are treatments and support available to them.
Since this change, Portugal has seen dramatic drops in substance abuse rates, as well as addiction rates. There are still some long-term concerns with this policy, though. Since the policy hasn’t been in effect for very long, it's hard to tell what the results will be on the overall health of Portugal’s people.
Diseases such as hepatitis C and liver cancer are prevalent in people who abuse hard drugs, and only time will tell if decriminalizing these drugs was an effective move.
It's important to note that just because decriminalizing all drugs in Portugal has seemingly had a positive effect; it doesn’t mean that this approach will work universally. Every nation’s situation is vastly different, and this isn’t a “one size fits all” solution.
Decriminalizing drugs in the United States is prone to many problems, but the current system we have in place does not seem to be very effective either.
It seems that the key to minimizing the drug epidemic in America is to provide people the help and resources that they need to recover from their addiction.
Addiction is almost always considered a disease by most medical institutions, and to fight it you need to treat the person who is suffering the same way you would treat someone who is suffering from any other ailment.
Throwing a drug addict in jail doesn’t solve any problems. In many ways, it's just putting off the issue until that person gets out of jail, only to repeat the same offenses.
A report done by CASA Colombia found that in 2005, the government spent around 74 billion dollars on incarceration costs for substance-related offenders (which included court proceedings, probation, parole, and actual incarceration).
In contrast, the government only spent only 632 million (which is less than 1% of 74 billion) on prevention and addiction treatment.
On top of that, the report found that only 11% of all inmates received treatment and help for their addiction. Based on this data, it seems that the focus in prison is to use fear and punishment as prevention, rather than providing inmates with the help that they need to recover.
When you look at Portugal’s approach to drug addiction, it does appear as though they are on the right track towards handling drug addiction.
In the United States, if you are caught being in possession of any schedule one drug, (which includes heroin, LSD, cocaine, meth, etc.) it is considered a felony.
If it’s not your first time being charged with possession, it will almost certainly result in spending time in jail and/or a very large fine. On the surface, the reasoning behind this makes sense. If you do something that is against the law, you go to jail.
This is how governments and societies have worked for centuries, but this solution has proven over the past couple of decades to be ineffective.
Since the “war on drugs” started back in the ’80s, the government has spent over 1 trillion dollars in efforts to control the use of these illegal substances; meanwhile, the number of people incarcerated for drug usage has drastically increased.
Clearly, the way that we handle things currently isn’t working, and we need to find another solution. Locking people up in jail doesn’t prevent the problem; it only prolongs the problem.
Although Portugal seems to be on the right track, it doesn’t feel right saying that we should make every illegal drug legal.
In the same report referenced earlier, CASA Colombia found that out of the 2.3 million people who were incarcerated at the time, 85% had a record of substance abuse.
On top of this, drugs were involved in 78% of all violent crimes, and 83% of all property crimes. Based on this data, it seems incorrect to legalize all drugs.
People who are under the influence of drugs can be hazardous and unpredictable, which is why drug-related laws were created in the first place. Long term abuse of these drugs can also be incredibly harmful to your body.
According to the American Addiction Center, prolonged use of cocaine is heavily linked to heart and brain problems, due to the fact that the drug alters the user’s respiratory system. These problems are often not easily detected, and when they are, it is often too late to do anything about it.
Answering the initial question of “should all drugs be legalized?”, is a very complex and delicate matter, and is not as simple as yes or no. We need to find a new way to handle these issues because the drug laws we have in place don’t seem to work. The black market can add dangerous, synthetic drugs that perhaps would have never been created, had other drugs been legal.
Portugal had a great initial idea of helping and treating people who are addicted to drugs, rather than incarcerating them. The real question is whether this type of approach would work in the United States.
Regardless of location or individual beliefs, we need to move away from harsh punishments and instead focus on helping people with addictions recover.