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