Friday, 4 September 2009

High on Love

A recent story on the AP news wire caught my attention. Mexican drug gangs, who remain in a vicious struggle for influence with the government and other actors within Mexico, have taken to attacking drugs rehab clinics, in an effort to scare people into continuing to consume their 'merchandise'.

The Mexican government has thousands of troops out on the streets to fight the drug gangs, and the violence continues. The US government, and especially state and local authorities on or near the border, must surely also fear the impact the violence will have on them, and how easily it might spread to their local areas. So a radical solution is needed. Mexico needs to shrug off the violence, and contain the effects of the gangs. It also needs to deal with other problems - the health issues caused by drugs, the damage to the economy that comes from the violence and the addictions, the costs incurred by combatting it.

The answer lies on the other side of the Atlantic, some 5,000 miles away. Portugal's drug policy is a brilliant example of how to handle drugs well.

Clearly, repression has failed. If banning drugs has failed to get them off the streets, and indeed has re-inforced the position of the drug gangs, then a new angle is vitally needed. Clearly, banning drugs is making drug policy more difficult - if the users and the suppliers and the dealers are all forced underground, then it costs time and money to locate and deal with the criminal elements, and those who find themselves trapped because of drug use find the social stigma attached to them debilitating. They may not wish to seek treatment because they fear they will be arrested. Then they end up in prison next to the dealer and the supplier, and they find themselves trapped even behind bars. The system is failing.

So Portugal has tried a new angle - by decriminalising every drug, in 2001. Marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, meth, even heroin. Drug users no longer face prison - instead, they are taken before a panel of experts (a lawyer, a psychologist and a social worker) who assess each case and assign treatment as needed (not jail) as well as community sanctions if needed.

They were told drug use would soar, that by being soft, they would encourage drug tourists and that organised crime would flourish. Instead, quite the opposite. Now, 10% of people over 15 in Portugal have used marijuana at some time in their life, the lowest rate in the EU and far lower than the US rate of 32.9% (people over 12). During the first five years of the policy, according to the Cato Institute, teen drug use fell in young and older teens, even among hard drugs like heroin. Other figures trend to the bright side - HIV infection rates among drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003. More people came onto treatment programmes.

These are impressive figures. Despite a very liberal drugs policy, Portugal's drug use rate is even lower than that of the US, which has a very strict drugs policy. The central concession being made in this debate is simple - that decriminalising drugs does not increase their use among the population.

Perhaps we should go further. Perhaps legalising drugs - all drugs - would change things for the better. Then, the cost to society imposed by peoples' use of drugs can be recouped through taxation on the drugs they consume. Law enforcement can focus on other issues, such as people smuggling, violent crime and the like. If people have to go to a pharmacy or GP's office to get their fix, then they will come into contact with the services that can provide them with help and social care to undo the damage to their lives.

Organised crime will suffer - not only will drugs users find themselves able to choose who they go to, but big pharma and commercial agriculture can out-produce any illegal activity, in terms of sheer scale and price difference. Regulated drugs will be free of the many impurities - flour, talcum powder, bugs, mouse droppings, rat poison - that currently end up in the drugs on the streets, thereby reducing the health damage from them.

However, this will not be a cure all. It will need a much stronger, more pro-active social service sector in this country, able to move out and identify problems while small. Investment will be needed before tax money comes in, and major opposition from 'hard line' campaigners has to be overcome. Much work will be needed to tailor drugs rehab programmes to make sure they are as well-supplied and open as possible. Organised crime will doubtless try and either fight back, or move into other areas.

Yet, it will help address many underlying issues in society at large. For a country like Mexico, it may make the state less unstable, and weaken actors who would threaten it and its' citizens. It would be a bold step for Mexico to make. But if one Catholic, socially conservative, country can do it, why can the rest of us deny that we have the ability to try the same? After all, our current course seems to be making little impact.


  1. All I can really say is that I concur, as long as the necessary health warnings are shown (Similar to cig packets)


  2. I dunno if decriminalisation of all drugs would have the effects here that it's had in Portugal, my main reason for believing so being the rather massive cultural gulf between the two countries. However, I'm definitely in favour of any sort of prison sentence for drug possession/use being shelved and replaced with treatment and rehabilitation programs for repeat offenders, with commital to secure units being an option in the cases where the user might present a risk to the public.

    although this is coming from a drug user so phhbhbhbbhbll