Cato Study on Drug Decriminalization in Portugal

Monday, May 4th, 2009

I’m tardy in blogging this, but Cato has published a terrific study by Glenn Greenwald on Portugal’s eight-year experiment with drug decriminalization. The fact that most people probably weren’t aware that use of even hard drugs in Portugal doesn’t carry a criminal sanction is a pretty good sign that the program is working.

And that’s what Greenwald found when he visited. Overdoses were down, drug-related crime and violence was down, and there was no measurable uptick in overall drug use.

Even Portugal’s approach still falls short of a policy centered around individual freedom, and we should hesitate before drawing any broad conclusions about a policy enacted in a country with a comparable small and homogenous population (as compared with the U.S.), but it’s certainly a nice counter to people who always invoke Amsterdam in the drug war debate.

Generally speaking, anyone who claims to know for certain what would happen if America were to legalize drugs tomorrow is spewing nonsense. We’ve had some form of prohibition in this country for 100 years. No one knows exactly what will happen.

That’s why I favor a federalist approach. There are sound Ninth Amendment arguments for finding an actual constitutional right to control what you put into your body. That’s never going to happen. And even if it did, I’d be afraid the change would be too sudden and drastic for much of the country. Instead, just end the drug war at the federal level. A federalist approach would let states and, preferably, localities formulate their own policies. You’d have little Amsterdams, Portugals, and Switzerlands, and you’d also have little Utahs, Louisianas, and Georgias. You’d probably have some cities that completely legalize. And you’d have places, probably entire states, that don’t change a thing.

We’d then have lots of models to look at and analyze. And people for whom this is an important issue could then vote with their feet, and move to jurisdictions with drug laws that reflect their own values.

Greenwald’s study shows that decriminalization over broader geographic area doesn’t have to produce the tourist effect we’ve seen in Amsterdam (although even that effect tends to be exaggerated).

Better yet, the study has gotten some really nice play in the media, including write-ups in Time and the Scientific American.

Here’s Greenwald discussing the study and a few other issues with Reason.tv:

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33 Responses to “Cato Study on Drug Decriminalization in Portugal”

  1. #1 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    I think the best argument for a general legalization is simply that we don’t have to keep it that way if we don’t like it. We can ALWAYS change a law we don’t like. If ending the War on Drugs creates a mess, we can start it up again – assuming that enough people agree that the mess is worth the bother.

    The War on Drugs does not work as advertised. Let’s try something else.

  2. #2 |  shooboxx | 

    I love this idea – leave it up to the localities. SF and similar communities will be a bustling hub of drugs (although I am sure it will be like many places where drugs are legal and addiction will not soar out of bounds), other more anti-drug areas will keep their laws as is and deal with exorbitant costs for incarcerating minor drug infractions

  3. #3 |  Tim C | 

    I soundly disagree with this federalist approach. We either have rights or we don’t. States don’t have the authority to interfere with those rights any more than the federal government does. And if we don’t end prohibition of drugs entirely/countrywide (and with the majority of the country probably being afraid to be the little Amsterdam etc) all the problems associated with prohibition (in particular, organized crime issues that are now the primary driver to attention to this issue in many of the articles linked from this blog, ironically) are going to remain.

  4. #4 |  todd | 

    Either way is better than what is gong on now.

  5. #5 |  Tim C | 

    #3 Todd, ok, technically that’s true, but it would mean no real progress in the grand scheme of things/big picture. Also, I meant to point out that the article is about decriminalization, not legalization, so all the issues associated with trafficking (high prices, no contract enforcement in courts, resulting violence, etc) are still an issue – all we’d get by the approach cited here would be some areas where the end user didn’t have to worry about it (admittedly, an improvement, but really not that big a step in the big pic, again). Radley’s observation that “Greenwald’s study shows that decriminalization over broader geographic area doesn’t have to produce the tourist effect we’ve seen in Amsterdam (although even that effect tends to be exaggerated)” does get a +1 however.

  6. #6 |  Tim C | 

    Oh, and I also forgot to mention that I did note the study mentions reduced crime/violence etc, but I really question how that resulted specifically vs. the situation we have here (huge Mexican cartels etc). As I indicated, I have serious doubts that local pockets of legalization would make much of a dent in that kind of prohibition-fueled activity.

  7. #7 |  A Dream Team Takes On A Pet Peeve « Beware The Man | 

    […] Radley Balko, Glenn Greenwald, The Agitator, CATO Institute, WOD, Portugal | No Comments  Radley Balko and Glenn Greenwald provide some solid reasoning and evidence behind something that should have […]

  8. #8 |  Al | 

    The WHO published a 17 country study that included the United States, Mexico, Columbia and seven EU countries (not Portugal, unfortunately) last year on the use of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, and cocaine use. (Here: http://medicine.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pmed.0050141&ct=1 )

    Their conclusion:

    “Globally, drug use is not distributed evenly and is not simply related to drug policy, since countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones.”

    Which basically means that the WHO has determined that prohibition does not work. Why hasn’t this study gotten more attention?

  9. #9 |  Mike T | 

    I think a few predictions about what’d happen if it were legalized here are safe:

    1) Use would spike in the first few years as people got a chance to try drugs safely and legally.

    2) Employers would be more likely to adopt zero tolerance policies for intoxication.

    3) A lot of drinkers would switch to pot.

    4) Drug violence would go down.

    5) The police would switch to demanding authority to seize the cars of drunk and stoned drivers as an alternative to other asset forfeiture.

    6) Civil libertarians would still have a hard, long fight to undo the police powers gained for the war on drugs.

  10. #10 |  The Johnny Appleseed Of Crack | 

    I’m tardy in blogging this

    I don’t feel tardy.

  11. #11 |  random guy | 

    I can’t agree with the federalist approach either. The vote with your feet argument is so incredibly elitist. The people most affected by these drug laws also happen to belong to the lowest income brackets, they cant afford to just pack up and move to make smoking pot safer. Not to mention the non-monetary cost of uprooting a family and losing connections with friends and extended family in an area. People move for significant increase in opportunities or quality of life, not jurisdictional grievances.

    How messed up would it be if there were pot bars in Nevada and in Utah possession of a few ounces gets you five years in prison? Why should a persons rights be determined by their neighbors, and not a principled approach to the nature of rights and freedoms?

    Its one thing to have dry counties and the sort, because then its a ten/twenty minute drive to the county line liquor store, AND you can’t get arrested for having it at home. But to let small communities establish the criminality of possessing a substance is begging for abuse and injustice.

  12. #12 |  The Johnny Appleseed Of Crack | 

    The vote with your feet argument is so incredibly elitist. The people most affected by these drug laws also happen to belong to the lowest income brackets, they cant afford to just pack up and move to make smoking pot safer. Not to mention the non-monetary cost of uprooting a family and losing connections with friends and extended family in an area. People move for significant increase in opportunities or quality of life, not jurisdictional grievances.

    America exists, and is/was the greatest nation on earth, because a lot of destitutely poor, yet incredibly driven people chose to vote with their feet. And they didn’t just have to move from one state to another. They moved across an ocean, in an era when that was both costly and dangerous.

  13. #13 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    People in America are voting with their ballots (not their feet) and they’ve voted in big government, wealth distribution and confiscation, and socialism.

    They’ve voted out capitalism and freedom every chance they’ve gotten.

    Whatever you thought America was, you might want to listen more to Bill “You are what you are” Parcells.

  14. #14 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    The People in America did NOT vote for Socialism. They voted for a bright, shiny package that had little or nothing to do with reality. The mainstream media essentially signed up as part of the Obama PR campaign, and any suggestion that The One was a tired old Leftwing Socialist Hack was buried in reportorial drivel.

    Which isn’t to say that The People – bless their black, flabby hearts – are suddenly going to come to their senses in 2010 or 2012. But let’s not pretend they voted for what they got, ‘kay?

  15. #15 |  Ron | 

    It’s “centered on” not “centered around”.

  16. #16 |  Tim Worstall | 

    As someone who actually lives in Portugal a couple of things. Firstly, about drug tourism. The police do very much hassle obviously not Portuguese who are thinking about buying/ using. They don’t want to become a sink for the addicts of Europe.

    The other is that it’s obviously pretty easy to score, most people don’t want to and therefore don’t and there really doesn’t seem to be much hassle about the whole thing.

  17. #17 |  nemo | 

    With a federalist approach, the market would soon dictate just which States will remain economically viable and which won’t. Chase out those who want legal access to cannabis, and you may find that you’ve caused a ‘brain drain’ of some very creative people…the same kind that developed the technology you are using to read these words in this way.

    Enough of that, and those States that remain recalcitrant on cannabis may find themselves in even worse economic straights than before.

    Elitist? Perhaps. But not many welfare recipients become employers. And we need more employers than we do welfare recipients. And States that re-legalize cannabis will probably wind up with more of the former than the latter…

  18. #18 |  Dave Krueger | 

    I favor a federalist approach only because that’s probably the only way it’s going to happen. That does two things. First it gets the feds off the hook for unleashing disaster (which is probably what many people fear) and secondly it allows things to happen in small chunks and local government can react more quickly and with greater precision to correct defects in the legalization process.

    Nevertheless, I don’t believe regulating drugs is a legitimate government function either locally or nationally. But then, most people know I’m an unreasonable crusading ideologue who would sacrifice practicality in favor of principle to satisfy my fantasy vision of a utopian world wherein all people are free to engage in a never-ending orgy of sex and drugs. In fact, I think I may just tap into that as my first campaign promise.

  19. #19 |  John | 

    It sounds like a fascinating study, and I sure hope that we could get a chance to implement similar laws in the U.S. But given Greenwald’s history of sock-puppetry, readers of the report must question its veracity.

  20. #20 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Wow, I don’t think there’s a single post here that I disagree with. I might as well take the day off.

  21. #21 |  David | 

    I with you as far as ending the drug war on a federal level. I’m just not sure I trust the states to change things for the better. A lot of people(with powerful unions and lobbies) make their livings based on prohibition, and there’s the ingrained idea that a person must justify things they want to do with a “better” reason than “Because I feel like it” that would need to be overcome. Although I guess if the pool of federal anti-drug money dried up, some of their motivation would drop off as well.

    Anyway, I fully expect that this Cato report to be ignored, as our drug warriors believe they’re fighting for “moral” reasons, and feel all collateral damage is justified by their “moral” intentions.

  22. #22 |  Elliot | 

    Wow, I don’t think there’s a single post here that I disagree with. I might as well take the day off.

    Not so fast.

    “Practicality” usually means the abandonment of principles. So what the hell good are principles if you don’t adhere to them in tough situations?

  23. #23 |  Cynical in CA | 

    There is too much money in drug prohibition.

    Drug prohibition in the currently-constituted U.S. will never end.

    It will take a revolution to end it.

  24. #24 |  Cynical in CA | 

    “I don’t feel tardy.”

    Hot For Teacher, Van Halen

  25. #25 |  Ben R. | 

    The blathering about socialism in this post’s comments section couldn’t be a larger red herring.

    Anyone who believes that the stringent drug laws and overwhelming police power are somehow correlated with the altogether nebulous term of ‘socialism’ used by the right to describe everything from a public plan for heath care to actually obeying signed treaties,would do well to consider the many countries where this is not the case – say the Netherlands – and nations purportedly capitalist in nature that have what frequently amounts to a police state – like say the United States.

  26. #26 |  Dave Krueger | 

    #22 Elliot

    “Practicality” usually means the abandonment of principles. So what the hell good are principles if you don’t adhere to them in tough situations?

    I’m not abandoning principles. I’m sacrificing practicality in favor of principles.

    “But then, most people know I’m an unreasonable crusading ideologue who would sacrifice practicality in favor of principle…”

  27. #27 |  Elliot | 

    Oops. I need new glasses, or something.

    Sorry, Dave.

  28. #28 |  Elliot | 

    …the altogether nebulous term of ’socialism’…

    Socialism is government interference in the economy. It ranges from Marxism, to Democratic Socialism, to the “mixed” economy. The people who most benefit from pretending that “socialism” doesn’t really mean anything are those collectivists who want to deny individuals the right to live their lives on their own terms.

    …and nations purportedly capitalist in nature that have what frequently amounts to a police state…

    Good thing you put in “purportedly” since the massive government interference in the economy (particularly from the New Deal onward) makes this country decidedly not free market. That being said, it has been more free than the rest of the world, so your crack about the US being a “police state” in direct defiance of the historical fact of gulags, killing fields, reeducation camps of communist countries (not history in Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, China), as well as the nanny state tyranny of western Europe (UK being a startling example of disgusting police practices).

    What has ruined the US is not the free market, but the War on Drugs, pushed by all political factions. Since the black market is a market, suppressing it is suppressing free market capitalism.

  29. #29 |  divadab | 

    Federalist Approach – Amen, Brother!

    It’s already partially in place – there are parts of the country where cannabis, for example, is effectively legal but for Federal Government prohibition (CA, WA, OR, and so on); but parts where cannabis possession is a ticket to major jail and asset forfeiture (UT, TX, etc.).

    Indicative of a larger problem, IMHO – the Federal Govt of these here United States has hugely overstepped its constitutional bounds and become a corrupt, bloated, parasitic (even predatory) borg. FEd expenditure needs to be cut in half, starting with the military, but also whole departments need to be eliminated – Education (reserved to the States), DEA, ONDCP, and other usurpatory authorities.

  30. #30 |  Drug Decriminalization: Portugal’s Experience « The Emergent Fool | 

    […] sales and driving the prices down, putting the drug lords in Mexico and elsewhere out of business. Other states will be more strict to start and can amend later based on results in the liberal states. Obama should give mass pardons for […]

  31. #31 |  nemo | 

    “Indicative of a larger problem, IMHO – the Federal Govt of these here United States has hugely overstepped its constitutional bounds and become a corrupt, bloated, parasitic (even predatory) borg. FEd expenditure needs to be cut in half, starting with the military, but also whole departments need to be eliminated – Education (reserved to the States), DEA, ONDCP, and other usurpatory authorities.” – Divadab

    I would say that the economy will finally force the debate as to whether we can continue to afford said parasitic agencies…and more importantly, the policies they ‘administer’.

    Cash-strapped States like California, facing fiscal Armageddon, are now contemplating the unthinkable: legalized and taxed cannabis. Other States may follow suit.

    Just as happened before with alcohol Prohibition, drug prohibition’s rubber is meeting the fiscal road…and the rubber is going to be shredded against the rock-hard tarmac of the fiscal realities.

  32. #32 |  Patriot Henry | 

    “There are sound Ninth Amendment arguments for finding an actual constitutional right to control what you put into your body. .”

    Yes, there is such a right – it’s part of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.

    I already found the right – and discovered that prohibition appears to be a violation not only of the federal Constitution but most or all of the state Constitutions, meaning all such prohibitions are null and void and drugs are already constitutional. In addition, as no government can seize even by constitutional authority no one can disable the inalienable rights of man – drugs are legal throughout the world.

    Even Utah recognizes the rights of life, liberty, property – and so far as I can find doesn’t delegate the power to regulate these to the state government, and even if it did the right would still exist.

    “That’s never going to happen”

    Not only did I discover my rights – I also control what I put into my body.

  33. #33 |  Political Blog Weekly: 8 May 2009 | U.S. Common Sense | 

    […] "Cato Study on Drug Decriminalization in Portugal" Originally published:  4 May 2009 Submitted by:  U.S. Common Sense Summary:  Looking to Portugal to see how the US would handle a change in the current drug laws to a more "federalistic" approach. […]

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