The man’s hat is pulled low over his face as he walks along the cobblestone streets of Lisbon. His furtive step pinballing between passerby, a question, a shake of the head: No. As I near, I see him set his sights on me.
“Marijuana?” he asks out of the side of his mouth. “Hash? Coke?”
No thanks, I said, giving the slight shake of the head he sees all day. He moves on, his hands buried in the pockets of a baggy dark coat, patient as he continues to fish amongst the moving throngs in the Baixa district.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs, setting forth one of the boldest experiments in drug control as many countries around the world were reeling from the proliferation of readily available drugs and the users who were addicted to them. Governments were trying everything to curb drug use, generally favoring the criminal justice approach (especially here in the United States), which involves punishing people caught using or selling drugs with prison time. But Portugal’s new approach was a radical step in a different direction, i.e., investing in education, prevention and counseling instead of imprisonment.
Traveling through countries where a problem faced by all of us is approached in a new and successful way can bring new insight to the age-old problem of what to do with those who choose not to be part of “normal” society. Drugs have almost always been considered a threat by society, inconducive to productive behavior, but they’ve always been present. This is in no small part due to the imperfect natures of societies built on the back of imperfect individuals, thus the need for distraction, coping or an aid for the search of higher truths.
Nuno Miranda, a car parker in Lisbon, turned to drugs in the nineties as heroin use was exploding in Portugal. “Everyone did it then,” he said, according to a New Yorker interview. “It was something I had to try. It made my life bearable—it still does.”
In Portugal, unlike the seemingly post-apocalyptic streets of my own hometown in Portland, I saw relatively few people who were homeless (though those numbers are rising due to Portugal’s economic crisis). Those who need help with their drug habits can find it, and those caught with drugs aren’t punished and sent to prison unless they are trafficking. Instead, they are brought before a council, which usually involves a doctor, lawyer or judge and a social worker who decide on a case-by-case basis what is necessary, be that counseling, small fines, clean needles or rehabilitation. So far, decriminalization has had an enormous impact in Portugal, and the statistics seem to back up the controversial decision.
According to the E.U. website on drug policy, officials claim they save 15 euros in police and healthcare costs per euro spent on drug education, prevention and counseling. While we in the U.S. spend over $51 billion annually on a nebulous “War on Drugs” that imprisoned 1.5 million people in 2013 alone.
“The U.S. seems afraid to grapple with this problem openly and creatively,” wrote Rick Steves, travel entrepreneur and cannabis anti-prohibition advocate. “Rather than acting as a deterrent, the U.S. criminalization of marijuana drains precious resources, clogs our legal system and distracts law enforcement attention from more pressing safety concerns. Of the many billions of tax dollars we invest annually fighting our war on drugs, more than two-thirds is spent on police, courts and prisons. Meanwhile, European nations—seeking a cure that isn't more costly than the problem itself—spend a much larger portion of its drug policy funds on doctors, counselors and clinics.”
But common sense does not always prevail due to a host of issues that force the hand of hasty judgements made by politicians beholden to interest groups—mostly centering on the moral and philosophical questions of whether the state should, in any way, assist those with drug problems by using taxpayer money.
Interestingly enough, if the federal government were to legalize currently illegal drugs, tax revenue would reach upward of $46.7 billion, annually. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HIV rates would fall 80 percent among those who share needles if we instituted a program that offered clean needles like Portugal and many other European nations. We are shortsighted, blinded by the upfront costs in lieu of the potential long-term savings, of life as well as money, that a decriminalized or even legalized drug policy could entail.
As the results of the 2001 decriminalization of drugs in Portugal continue to accrue, the medical approach to treating drug use as a disease continues to prove more effective than a criminal approach. While it is unlikely that the U.S. will decriminalize all drugs, the decriminalization of cannabis is a step in the right direction.
“I was using drugs for five or seven years before that law passed,” Miranda said of the 2001 Portuguese decriminalization law. “Since then, everything has changed. Everything."