A recent article in the Economist caught my eye regarding drug legalization (“legalization” being the operative word) in Portugal. Having lived in San Francisco for a brief stint about two years ago I was privy firsthand to the “harm reduction” model. Essentially, instead of criminalizing drug use which can and has resulted in bloated prisons costing tax payers an arm and a leg, try and reduce the harm. Accept that addicts will be addicts, provide a way out of the addiction (counseling, treatment centers), but no force should be applied.
The counter-argument is if you accept drug use and in some cities provide safe places to use, the message you are sending to society, and most important to your younger populations, is this behavior while harmful is not illegal and should not be judged. This continues to be the powerful argument against widespread legalization, but the results of a country-wide harm reduction model in Portugal cannot be denied.
Possessing small amounts of marijuana, heroine, and cocaine (up to 10 days of personal use) is not a punishable crime in Portugal. The individual is still stopped, drugs are confiscated, but instead of being sent to prison the individual is sent to a drug board which judges the person accordingly and frequently either hands out community service hours or a small fine. Treatment options are heavily suggested and the country has seen a massive up-tick in the number of people seeking voluntary treatment since this new law has been put in place.
All of the statistics point to a Portugal that has not been inundated with addicts spilling into the streets, rampant crime, or a haven for narcotics activity. However we again return to the overall message that is being communicated.
We are seeing some big changes in drug laws in developing countries. Argentina and Mexico have legalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana and Europe and Canada are far ahead with regard to the harm reduction model. I am not sure this model is replicable everywhere, but the statistics do not lie. What say you?