The most instinctive reaction Alex Stevens encounters when advocating for drug law reform is some variation of the classic "Think of the children" trope. Now, after overseeing a comprehensive review of drug policy in Portugal, where possession of everything from marijuana to heroin has been decriminalized since 2001, Stevens, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Kent in Britain, has a blunt rebuttal to that line of thinking. "Criminalization of drugs is not protecting our children," he says. “In fact, it’s harming our children." By any conceivable empirical metric, Portugal’s vastly liberalized drug policy has succeeded. And as Stevens argues, the most potent lesson to be learned is that the "decriminalization of drugs does not necessarily lead to increases in drug use.”
Portugal no longer views drug users through the prism of the criminal justice system. Though production, trafficking and sales of drugs remain illegal, authorities now refer people they find in simple possession of illicit substances to a panel that consists of a psychologist, social worker and legal advisor—no law enforcement personnel are present. By classifying drug addiction as a medical problem, the Portuguese have lessened the stigma and legal obstacles that addicts may otherwise encounter in seeking treatment. “The main focus of their policy change,” Stevens says, “is to emphasize social solidarity between drug users and the rest of society, so that people are not cast out just because they’re drug users.”
The administrative bodies that handle drug-related matters in Portugal are called Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, a name that signals a distinct cultural shift away from a drug control policy centered on interdiction and criminal liability toward one almost entirely within the domain of public health. "Portugal has not decriminalized the supply of the drugs," Stevens continues. "What they’ve done is make sure that drug users don’t face criminal penalties, but have a system in place where if they have a need for treatment, they can get treatment. And if they don’t have a need for treatment, they’re not harmed any more by the criminal justice system than they are by the use of drugs." None of the panel’s recommendations are mandatory, yet in the years since Portugal implemented its policy, the number of people seeking medical assistance for drug-related issues has risen by 41 percent. And as rates of heroin injection have declined, incidence of HIV/AIDS have fallen significantly.
Many in the United States maintain that an ambitious nationwide decriminalization effort is unnecessary, since drug courts already offer offenders an effective alternative to prison. But court systems lack adequate funds to treat everyone who might qualify, especially with budget crises straining state coffers. Portugal is able to provide such treatment in part because decriminalization saves money on enforcement costs. Moreover, because an American defendant must plead guilty in order to enter drug court, people who may have been exonerated at trial end up in prison for failing to satisfy the judge’s requirements.