“It’s OK to let go of the hard-line. We can drop the tight-lipped approach, brush away the judgments, open the doors of the jail cells and just let the compassion come pouring out — Portugal has proved it.”
Imagine a world where prison time for drug possession is replaced with therapy. Where the idea that “small-time drug users” are not pushed underground on the fringes of society, but made to feel like the society they are a part of wants to support them in “recovery” (if they need it) and to live a more productive life.
That’s the idea that Portugal’s drug laws have been based on since they were enacted in 2001. Instead of jail time, small-time drug criminals are offered drug addiction treatment programs, which they can deny without punishment.
Of course like any change in drug policy, or rather human treatment policy, there were many opponents with well-formulated arguments, mainly based on the fear of drugs taking over their country.
“Drug tourists from around the world will come and take over our streets,” some argued. Apparently, with already some of the highest drug use in Europe, they decided they didn’t have much to lose and recognized the current system wasn’t working.
So, how well is the new system working?
As it was reported in TIMES magazine in 2009, Cato Springs Institute released results of a study they commissioned to answer that very question. The report showed that eight years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens declined, and the contraction of HIV from sharing needles dropped. One of the most shocking statistics was that of people seeking treatment for their drug abuse — that number doubled.
And compared to the United States and European Union, Portugal’s drug numbers are impressive. After decriminalization, rates of lifetime marijuana use in people over the age of 15 in Portugal went to 10 percent. The most comparable figure in the U.S. is in people over 12, which sits at about 39 percent.
Can you even believe that Portugal began to save money by sending fewer people to jail and more to treatment facilities where they used increased funding to offer drug-free treatments?
As the U.S. continues the hard-lined stance on drug enforcement, the drug wars in Mexico become more violent, sick people in our own country can’t use the one drug they say helps them find relief and those suffering from drug addiction find no solace in the society they belong to.
The greatest truth about this policy change is that it shows a structured approach to compassion instead of punishment. Today, many converts to Portugal’s drug policy claim “the level of conflicts on the street are reduced,” “drug related robberies are reduced” and “the police are not the enemies of the consumers” — these quotes coming from a news broadcast from Fox Business where they interviewed a police inspector and other officials from the European Union.
It seems almost as if showing compassion to citizens means they can begin to care about themselves, maybe even others, and maybe even their government.
With our own chance to show compassion towards Arkansas citizens in the form of legalizing medical marijuana (now officially a measure on the November ballot in Arkansas, if you hadn’t heard), we should take these proven, common sense and compassionate legal strategies to heart.
We have seen that “lax” drug policies can work when coupled with productive policies that address the humanistic side of the issue — the one where we acknowledge drug use is not murder or rape, it can stem from serious addiction problems that anyone is capable of falling victim to, and that when someone is doing harm to only themselves they deserve a chance to get better, not get punished even more.
Or in the case of medical marijuana, we can at least see that legalizing a drug for those who are suffering from hunger, pain, dementia, nausea and a number of other ailments, won’t cause our society to crumble in a drug-induced panic.
In other words, it’s OK. It’s OK to let go of the hard-line. We can drop the tight-lipped approach, brush away the judgments, open the doors of the jail cells and just let the compassion come pouring out — Portugal has proved it.