Decriminalizing Drug Usage in the US

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all forms of drugs. If you’re caught using drugs, instead of being punished and sent to jail, you’re forced to appear in front of a judge, a psychologist and doctors who create a mandatory treatment plan. Portugal uses a holistic approach that treats drug users as patients, rather than criminals. Ten years on, they’ve seen incredible results.  From Business Insider:

  1. 50% reduction in drug addicts
  2. Drug usage is among the lowest in EU
  3. Drug related health problems like overdoses and STDs are down even more than usage rates

Government officials believe they’ve seen these incredible results because drug users are more willing to seek help because they’re not scared of going to jail. Users go to the doctor more often and are given more opportunities to get into programs to get off drugs. It’s still illegal to sell drugs and Portugal punishes dealers, but simple drug use is treated as a public health issue.

Contrast Portugal’s amazing success to the huge problems we face in the US.  Some stats from Time’s Fareed Zakaria:

  • There are more people under ‘correctional supervision’ than were in the Gulag under Stalin
  • The US has 760 prisoners per 100k citizens. Japan, 63, Germany 90, France 96, South Korea 97, UK 125, Mexico 208, Brazil 242.
  • US makes up 5% of world population but 25% of world’s prisoners
  • In 1980 prison population was 150 per 100k citizens. Now it’s 760.
  • Drug convictions 1980, 15 inmates per 100k. 1996 148.
  • 50% of federal inmates are drug related convictions
  • 1.66m arrested in 2009 for drug charges. 80% are for possession only.
  • It costs California $45,000 per year to house a prisoner

The war on drugs has been a colossal failure. We’ve spent trillions of dollars, imprisoned millions and wrecked the lives of many more. And it doesn’t even work! In 2010, we had the highest drug usage rate in years.  And that’s just in the US. The war on drugs has caused incredible violence in Mexico, where over 50,000 people were killed since the latest drug crackdown.

There’s something wrong with a society when 760 out of every 100,000 people are in prison.  When we punish people rather than finding solutions and let people suffer as drug addicts rather than helping them. It’s morally wrong and cannot be justified by public safety, economics or any other measurable data.  The only reason we’re still on this path is that people say “drugs are bad, lets punish people as a deterrent.” This argument does not hold water.

It’s time to stop treating drug users as criminals and get them the help they need to get off drugs. Let’s stop wrecking families by sending a drug user off to prison. Lets have some compassion and treat drug use as a public health issue, a disease, rather than something that should be punished. It’s amazing what happens when you treat the source of the problem, rather than punishing the consequences. If we even have half the success that Portugal had with its policy, the USA will be much better off.

What do you think?


  • Fully agree. In my home country the Netherlands we even legalize soft drugs. A result of that is that less people go for hard drugs

    • I would love to see a comprehensive plan that pushed drug use to specific areas that had access to treatment, medical care etc. The red light district and coffee shops in the netherlands are a great example.

  • I would make the whole drug and prostitution market legal: this would dry up the organized crime main source of income. With the money saved, we could try to help the drug addicts and the prostitutes. Incidentally (just in case anyone cares), we would save some human lives.

    • I think it would likely be like when prohibition ended: organized crime got out of violent alcohol running and moved into other areas. It would be interesting to see it happen.

    • The criminal organizations that were involved in alcohol running have slowed to a trickle now. It took 90 years. Every second that the war on drugs continues is another second longer to reduce the reach of organized crime.

  • “cannot be justified by public safety, economics or any other measurable data”

    For a lot of people, it’s not about the data, they see drug use as a moral issue – School/church/gov’t has taught them that drugs are bad, and should therefore be illegal.  I’m not a member of that camp, and would like to see some things decriminalized at a minimum, but I can still relate.  

    As an example, just yesterday we were playing kickball on the turf of a school lot.  Some folks showed up and started smoking weed… on the schoolgrounds… in broad daylight… with children playing on the playground not 15 ft. away!  I’m generally fine with soft drug use, but I have a serious problem with that.

    I see some comments already about restricting use to specific areas, which in my mind would be a requisite for any type of legalization.  Regardless, I don’t think either of our presidential candidates have the gumption to push this issue in the upcoming term, so I’m not holding out for any drastic changes at the federal level.

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