The headline of the Kentucky Enquirer editorial of August 26, 2016 was blunt and as loud as it could be, ’78 Ods in 2 Days? Time to Fight Heroin with Money!’ The Editorial went on to bemoan our self-created heroin overdose problem and calls for more money to fight this growing problem.
This echoes our past as the end of alcohol prohibition was preceded by exactly the same kinds of circumstances. Deaths from unregulated alcohol on the black market and a realization that we cannot arrest our way out of the problems caused by alcohol abuse. Our current policy regarding drugs is one of complete prohibition, as it was with alcohol, accompanied by arrest and incarceration. Possession of any amount is considered a crime and rehabilitation can be forced. This policy has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be a complete failure. Our jails are filled with nonviolent citizens who are further victimized by after prison restrictions and add on punishments, all to no avail. According to Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, LEAP, the percentage of the citizens using drugs has basically hovered around 1.3% of the population regardless of the severity of drug prohibition laws. It was 1.3% when the Harrison Act was passed in 1914, 1.3% when marijuana was made illegal in 1937, 1.3% when the 1970 Controlled Substances Act we operate under today, was passed, and it is 1.3% today.
President Nixon appointed a commission, called the Shafer Commission to study drugs in America and make recommendations. The commission recommended that drugs be treated as a medical and not a criminal problem. Nixon ignored the Commission’s recommendations and declared the War on Drugs for the purpose of harassing his political enemies. By associating African Americans with heroin and Anti-War protesters with marijuana and criminalizing them heavily they could arrest their leaders and break up their meetings as Nixon aide John Ehrlichman admitted to in a 1994 interview. So we are currently operating under a failed policy of arrest and incarceration given to us by a troubled and vindictive President solely for political purposes and worst of all we are still at it!
The increasing awareness of the failure of our current policies should cause us to try something new, preferably a policy with a proven track record of success where it has been tried. A good example is stopping overdose deaths. Simply legalizing medical marijuana in a State engenders a 25% drop in opioid overdose deaths in the first year after legalization that grows to 33% by the 6th year after legalization as reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
There is a successful policy for dealing with hard drug use and addiction and it has a proven track record of success. Portugal in 2001 decriminalized all drugs, as reported by Mr. Glenn Greenwald in Newsweek Magazine in an article titled, ‘What Portugal Can Teach Us About Decriminalizing Drugs’. Drug possession for personal use and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited, but the violations of those prohibitions are deemed to be exclusively administrative violations and are removed entirely from the criminal realm. Drug trafficking continues to be prosecuted as a criminal offense.
The data shows that, judged by every measure, Portuguese drug policy has been a huge success and this success should be mirrored by our own drug policies. None of the fears told us by the opponents of this policy have shown their ugly heads and the benefits that were predicted have been substantial. Drug addiction and usage and their associated problems in the other EU countries has continued to rise. In Portugal, in every significant category, they have either been measurably improved or contained. Drug usage has decreased even as usage across the EU has increased.
By freeing its citizens from the fear of arrest Portugal has dramatically improved its ability to encourage its citizens to avail themselves of treatment. Resources devoted to arrest and incarceration are now used to provide treatment. This, along with a shift to harm reduction have improved all drug related problems to include drug caused death and the transmission of disease.
The Portuguese have seen the benefits of decriminalization and there is no political push to return to the old policy. They are unanimous in the belief that this policy has led to a far more effective approach to their addiction problems.
We have the data that proves our current policy does not work. There is a policy that does. The lives of our addicted sons, daughters, husbands and wives are depending on a policy that works. What we need now are the Legislators with the foresight and courage to lead us to an effective drug policy and away from the outdated and unsuccessful policy we are now following.