Acknowledging that the war on drugs has failed is now fairly common among politicians. In June this year the US Senate concluded that it had nothing to show for more than three billion dollars spent recently on trying to reduce the volume of drugs coming into the USA. Before his election to the Senate in 2004, President Barack Obama called the US drugs policy, “an utter failure. Even David Cameron said in 2002, “war on drugs… has been tried and we all know it does not work”. Have they changed their drugs policy since their election? The answer is a resounding no, proving it’s harder to govern than campaign.

Depending on what reports you read, the UK government has spent a minimum of £80 billion in the past decade tackling the illicit drugs trade, and is likely to spend the same amount, if not more in the next ten years. According to Transform Drugs Policy Foundation report of 2009 the combined effects of crime, health and costs relating to drug prohibition policies leave the taxpayer with an annual bill of £16.785 billion a year. Surely it’s time for a new approach?

I do not advocate the legalization of drugs; however I do support the decriminalisation of drugs. Decriminalisation works, consider the action taken by Portugal in 2001.

Ten years ago the Portuguese government decided to stop treating its drug users as criminals and changed the law so that the procession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine, and cannabis became a civil rather than a criminal offence. Instead of being arrested and prosecuted, drug users are invited to attend one of 20 ‘dissuasion boards’ made up of a advocate, a social worker and a psychologists, to discuss their drug use and to categorized the user as either, a recreational user, a person with a developing problem, or an addict. And while 30% choose to refuse to appear at the first summons, most when threaten with a fine for non appearance eventually attend. Following their interview, the dissuasion board will evaluate their situation and either levy a fine, community service or the addict may be admitted to a drugs rehabilitation facility or programme.

Far from Portugal becoming more lenient, the reality is the state intervenes far more now than it did before the law changed. Since 2001 the government has made wholesale changes to the way Portugal deals with the drugs issue, investing in resources for prevention, harm reductions, rehab treatments and reintegration, creating a joined up approach to drug abuse administered by the Department of Health. The police too have changed their approach, before 2001 police would often not pursue drugs user they arrested, interested only in dealers and traffickers. Now anyone caught with drugs for personal use must go before one of the 20 dissuasion boards to be categorized.

The benefits’ of this joined up approach have been:

  • A reduction in the use of cannabis and cocaine to below the European average
  • A reduction in heroin use
  • Deaths from accidental overdoses has declined
  • Before 2001 more than 50% of those infected with HIV were drug addicts, with new diagnoses of HIV among addicts running at 3000 a year. These days addicts account for 20% of those infected with HIV, while the number of new HIV diagnoses of addicts has fallen to fewer than 2000 a year
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests a decline in petty crime associated with addicts who steal to maintain their habit.
  • Its estimated that £334 million has been taken out of the illegal drugs market. At the same time there has been a marked increase in the number of addicts in treatment from 23,500 – 35,000.

Portugal’s case shows that liberalising drugs law does not make drug use more prevalent in society. Since 2001 when drugs were decriminalised, the sky hasn’t fallen in; the country has not become a magnet for drug tourists like Amsterdam. The penalties for people caught dealing and trafficking drugs are unchanged.

I appreciate, Portugal is not Britain. Different culture, standard of living and infrastructure but surely it’s time for the United Kingdom government to carry out a comprehensive Impact Assessment to count the real costs of its drug policy, and explore alternatives approaches, even more so given the current economic crisis. It is a folly to pretend that society can arrest and jail its way out of the drugs problem, a more humanistic approach is required.

John Mead

Source Documents:

  1. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction Portugal Profile Report
  2. Transform Drugs Policy Foundation report The War on Drugs a Blueprint for Regulation
    Global Commission on drug policy report
  3. Scientific American article 5 Years After Portugal’s Drug Decriminalization Policy Shows Positive Results
  4. What Britain could learn from Portugal’s drugs policy by Peter Beaumont Observer 05.09.10
  5. Portugal’s experiment with drugs The Week 23.7.11
  6. Illegal drugs cost the country £16bn a year, says charity Transform by Tom Whitehead Daily Telegraph 7.4.09