Today, the Drug Policy Alliance is releasing a new video and briefing paper examining the human impact and lessons to be drawn from Portugal’s removal of criminal penalties for the possession of drugs for personal use.
In March 2018, DPA led a delegation of advocates from 35 racial justice, criminal justice, and harm reduction organizations across the U.S. to Portugal to learn from its health and human-centered approach to drug use. The group included individuals and organizations representing those hit hardest by the drug war – from those who have been incarcerated for drug offenses to those who have lost loved ones to an overdose.
Since Portugal enacted drug decriminalization in 2001, the number of people voluntarily entering treatment has increased significantly, overdose deaths and HIV infections among people who use drugs have plummeted, incarceration for drug-related offenses has decreased, and rates of problematic and adolescent drug use has fallen.
“What struck me the most is [Portugal’s] approach to solving a problem instead of compounding it… the humane, logical approach to helping its citizens,” said Susan Burton, executive director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, who joined DPA’s delegation. “Being there, seeing it and understanding it, and then looking at what we do in the U.S., made me think of our approach and policies as almost barbaric.”
By contrast, in the United States, the dominant approach to drug use is criminalization and harsh enforcement, with 1.4 million arrests per year for drug possession for personal use—that makes drug possession the single most arrested offense in the United States. Disproportionately, those arrested are people of color: black people are three times as likely as white people to be arrested for drug possession for personal use. In addition to possible incarceration, these arrests can create devastating barriers to access to housing, education and employment that systematically oppress entire populations. Meanwhile, 72,000 people are dying every year of overdose in the United States.
“Drug criminalization fuels the United States’ dual crises of mass criminalization & overdose deaths,” said Widney Brown, DPA’s Managing Director of Policy. “The Portuguese experience demonstrates that decriminalizing drugs – alongside a serious investment in treatment and harm reduction services – can significantly improve public safety and health.”
While several other countries have had successful experiences with decriminalization – including the Czech Republic, Spain and the Netherlands – Portugal provides the most comprehensive and well-documented example. The success of Portugal’s policy has opened the door for other countries to rethink the practice of criminalizing people who use drugs. Delegation participants generally agreed that it’s time for the United States to do so as well.
“I really would love to see the public health community step up and really demand that the criminal justice system separate themselves,” said Deon Haywood, executive director of New Orleans-based Women With A Vision, who joined DPA’s delegation. “They need to divest from each other. Addiction should be handled as a public health issue. Drug use should be handled as a public health issue. The criminal justice system needs to let go.”
As detailed in a recent DPA report, It’s Time For the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession, there’s an emerging public, political, and scientific consensus that otherwise-law-abiding people should not be arrested simply for possessing an illegal drug for personal use. A broad range of stakeholders – from the American Public Health Association & World Health Organization to the Movement for Black Lives & NAACP – have taken positions in favor of drug decriminalization.
“The trip confirmed there is nothing in our history or culture that inevitably dooms the U.S. to repeat the mistakes of our own drug policies,” said Andy Ko, Executive Director of Partnership for Safety and Justice, who joined DPA’s delegation. “That was the most significant lesson that I brought home from Portugal: Fear-based rhetoric and appeals to discriminatory bias lose their power when a solution-oriented response is available to a pressing society-wide problem.”