Wednesday, September 09, 2015

For a proper understanding of drugs policy in Portugal, read this

I've complained for years that praise for the Portuguese drugs policy has always seemed simplistic and overblown, especially when coming from libertarians. 

Well, I've found a paper (.pdf available here) from a credible sounding source that supports my take on this, and explains why so many of the claims about the Portuguese reform do not reflect the full story.

Here's the abstract:
 In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the acquisition, possession, and use of small
quantities of all psychoactive drugs. The significance of this legislation has been misunderstood. Decriminalization did not trigger dramatic changes in drug-related behavior because, as an analysis of Portugal’s predecriminalization laws and practices reveals, the reforms were more modest than suggested by the media attention they received. Portugal illustrates the shortcomings of before-and-after analysis because, as is often the case, the de jure legal change largely codified de facto practices. In the years before the law’s passage, less than 1 percent of those incarcerated for a drug offense had been convicted of use. Surprisingly, the change in law regarding use appears associated with a marked reduction in drug trafficker sanctioning. While the number of arrests for trafficking changed little, the number of individuals convicted and imprisoned for trafficking since 2001 has fallen nearly 50 percent.
One key point is that even before the drug reform, it was not as if they were jailing huge numbers of drug users in that country:
In 2000, for example, the year before the decriminalization law went into effect, there were only twenty-five individuals in prison for crimes involving drug use. Another 121 individuals, roughly 3 percent of the incarcerated drug offender population, had traffic-consumption convictions. In other words, before decriminalization, the courts could, but rarely did, impose prison sentences on convicted drug users; after passage of the Decriminalization Act, incarceration was no longer an option.18

The paper, near the end, notes this (my bold): 
Despite the Cato Institute’s celebration of Portugal’s drug reforms, the reforms were not a move toward liberty, but a shift from one arena of government involvement to another. Portugal’s Decriminalization Act is not based on a principle of an individual’s right to consume drugs free from state intrusion. The Act still prohibits drug use subject to citation, and cultivation for personal use remains criminally prohibited. 

Before that, it notes the high number of people who are getting treatment for drug use (with increased drug treatment services being a key change of the reform): 
Data indicate that the number of treatment centers and number of individuals receiving treatment increased with the implementation of decriminalization, although data on the country’s financial investment pre- and postreform are not available. In 1998, the first year of data collection on drug treatment centers, 23,654 drug users received some form of drug treatment. The number rose to 29,204 in 2000, the year before implementation of the Decriminalization Act; by 2008, the total number in treatment reached 38,532 (IDT 2009).37 These numbers included both clients in day-treatment programs and individuals in opioid substitution treatment, the latter of which accounted for roughly three-quarters of the total treatment population count. Consistent with the explicit intention of the drug reforms to increase treatment availability, the number of reporting outpatient treatment centers grew from fifty-three in 1998 to seventy-nine in 2010.
It also makes the point that drug seizures have not changed much since the change in the law (well, heroin did peak in the 1990's, but cocaine and hashish seizures show no big reduced trend).  Furthermore, while the number of people incarcerated for drug offences has dropped from a late 90's peak, it is still at about the same level as the mid 1990's.   These figures suggest that there has not been any massive drop off in policing of drug laws, as drug trafficking is indeed still unlawful.   This also suggests that the funding for increased drug rehabilitation services has not come from massive savings on policing.  (This being the claimed benefit of following the Portuguese policy in Australia in this article yesterday.)

So what about the Commissions which drug users can face?   They can order that addicted drug users get treatment, but it's not as if even casual cannabis users are given a cheery "on your way" by the police:
Since 2001, the Commissions processed between 3,500 to 5,500 cases per year, and resolved 85 to 90 percent of them with provisional suspensions.21 Estimates indicate that 60 percent to 70 percent of the suspensions involved nonaddicted consumers (IDT Annual Reports, 2002–2010). As discussed previously, a concern regarding the growing population of heroin users was the primary motivation for the decriminalization initiative. Despite this impetus, in practice, most of the individuals who appeared before the Commissions have not been problem drug users. Instead, the majority of the issued citations for drug use have been to increasingly younger, nonaddicted, cannabis users. The proportion of cases involving cannabis has steadily grown, from approximately 50 percent of the cases during the Commission’s first eighteen months of operation to 76 percent of the cases in 2009 (IDT 2002; IDT 2010).22 The composition of the Commission’s caseload raises questions concerning the efficacy and efficiency of a system developed, in principle, to treat problem drug use but that, in practice, spends most of its time and resources processing nonaddicted marijuana users.
Obviously, I'm not arguing that the Portuguese policy is a disaster, and I think everyone can agree that the American system has placed way too much emphasis on incarceration in its drugs policy.

But while I suspect libertarians are sniggering (or horrified) by Jacqui Lambie trying to get up some system by which ice addicts can be ordered into rehabilitation, her proposal is not a million miles away from the Portguese system, which they have uncritically embraced time and time again.

One of the key lessons of the Portuguese system seems to be for governments to fund  serious increase in drug addiction treatment services.  How many "libertarian/small government" types do you hear pushing for that?


Not Trampis said...

Sehr Interesant Stave,

Not Trampis said...

even interessant. I only did German at high school!