Drug lessons from Portugal?

Fabulous article in the latest New Yorker (alas, all you get is the beginning if you don’t have a subscription, but, if you have a way to read it, you definitely should) about Portugal’s quasi-legalization of drugs and what lessons can be learned.  Portugal still criminalizes drug dealing, but not drug using.  Their basic approach is harm reduction– adopt whatever policies are going to lead to the least overall harm from drugs.  Sounds like a damn good idea to me.  Right now we basically don’t cost-benefit anything with drug policy.  We sure as hell need to.

That said, the article is really quite even-handed and downright humble in its approach.  Obviously our over-criminalization is a failed policy, but it makes clear that pure legalization is not exactly a viable option either.  It also suggests that what works in Portugal may not work in America.  Rather than having clear prescriptions, all that it really recommends is that we rely less on the criminal justice/ war on drugs approach that is so clearly not working.  More than anything, it makes a compelling case that we have to do something (anything?) different than what we are.

Also, two really interesting points.  First, I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t come across this observation before:

In the United States, the penalty for using any particular drug has rarely had any relationship to its inherent danger…

the more a drug has been perceived to be associated with minorities and the poor, the graver the danger it is seen as posing to society.

Second point.  I was actually surprised to discover that apparently some people out there were under the impression that we could actually eliminate drug use.  Seriously?  As I’ve mentioned, all I ever do is drink a little alcohol, but it strikes me as glaringly obvious that the desire to get high in some form or another is a fundamental and pervasive aspect of human nature.  The article points out that among the earliest uses of agriculture were to ferment for alcohol.   As long as we’ve got humans, we’ll have humans doing drugs one way or another (and yes, drinking alcohol surely counts).  The only question is what is the smartest way to reduce the inevitable harm to individuals and society that comes with this.

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