I started this paper with the intention of writing about the differences and its effects of the drug policies in the US compared to Europe. But since drug policies in Europe diverge much between all the different countries it encloses, I optioned by comparing the drug laws in the US with the ones of my own country, Portugal. This decision was most correct since both have such different attitudes towards their population drug problem.
In one hand we have the United States of America with a very high penalty for drug possession and traffic and on the other we have Portugal which decriminalized the possession of all drugs, keeping only an administrative violation. Although many factors are to be considered, like the size of both populations, Portugal’s is of 10 million people, and many cultural background differences, one can compare the results and identify a trend on the results. It is important to understand that penalties in Portugal are way smaller that in the US.
The maximum prison penalty is of 25 years with the inexistence of death penalty and that Portugal did what it did not because they gave up on the war on drugs, but because they felt there was a need to find a different approach, since criminal penalties were not working. In the United States drug policies are very strict. In an article written by Jonathan Caulkins and Pete Reuters they evaluated the results of these laws and offered some alternatives that would require little change to the system. They start by informing the reader about the different drug epidemics and their time frame.
They explained that the first one was heroine, later cocaine, following it came crack and lastly were the methamphetamines. These were the big drugs that changed the attitude of America’s politicians towards drugs. Drug related expenses in the US account for 40 billion dollars that the government spends every year. Of course were talking at all levels, including prison, prevention, treatment and policing. Drug prevention programs are not extremely effective but are cheap and yes it is a good approach to fight against teen drug use.
Mass-media campaigns seem to produce no result, since you’ll a teenager will watch them, change the channel and find some show that supports the use of drugs. Doing treatment on drug abusers seems to produce a big impact on the population being treated. Although it is fairly expensive for the government they manage to control maybe a quarter of the addicted population and cure a fraction of those. Even if they end up relapsing there is still the success of dropping the criminal rates of those individuals, saving money to the state in the end.
Most of the US drug efforts go towards drug laws and the enforcement of them. It is at this point that we start to question the effectiveness of the US in controlling its addicted population. One billion is spent every year at the source of production like the Andes and Colombia, but the results are very weak since there is much will to make money producing coca leaves and marijuana in those areas. 2. 5 billion are spent in interdiction and although it has some success, there are just too many holes to close.
Most of the money spent by the US on drug related problems is on enforcement. Since the start of harsh punitive action towards drug abusers and distributers in the eighties there has been an increase of 400 thousand people to the US prisons population. There are currently half a million people living in American prison cells. That doesn’t seem very right in a country that defends freedom on top of everything. There are as many inmates in America as in the whole European continent which as a way bigger population that the US, exceeding by at least 300 million.
Most of these people were arrested for drug distribution and some for possession accumulated with other charges. The question is “Does tough enforcement work”, because Americans are spending a whole of their taxes moneys to make sure the streets are clean and they would hope it is working. “The theory is that tough enforcement will raise the risk of drug selling. Some dealers will drop out of the business, and the remainder will require higher compensation for taking greater risks. Hence the price of drugs should rise.
It should also make drug dealers more cautious and thus make it harder for customers to find them. So the central question is whether the huge increase in incarceration over the past 25 years has made drugs more expensive and/or less available” (Reuter and Caulkins, 206). They later explain using some math that the price actually dropped and that this theory is not working at all. The point is, too much money is being spent to keep this people in jail with little return. There has been some decrease on the amount drug users, but maybe not for the right reasons.
Jailing people may have some results, but it is way too expensive for the little results. More money should be spent on treating people since there seems to be plenty to jail them. In 2001, Portugal, my home country, took the decision to decriminalize all drugs. Note that they did not legalize drugs. Technically drugs possession is still illegal and you will still receive and administrative penalty, but you would never get jail time for it. Distribution is still a criminal act and therefore there are limits for how much someone can have in its possession to be considered personal use.
To give an example of how it works, imagine a young man is going into a concerto and while checking is belongings at the entrance they find a gram of marijuana. The cops will probably take the weed from its possession, but will not do more than advice him not to carry these sorts of things around. Now, in case he starts protesting and making a fuss about it, then they’ll take him in and he’ll probably pay a fine. In case they found something considered of higher risk, like heroin, then they will take him to the police station, he’ll probably spend the night and then he’ll be forced to engage treatment for his addiction.
This legal solution as produced many good results and has been highly appreciated by other European countries since it has produced great results. In 2009, Glenn Greenwald wrote an article named “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies” where he thoroughly analyzes the results of this option and compares it to other countries. The author refers to the results as very good and in my country it is a very popular measure where, although there are still some changes needed to be done, everyone agrees that the decriminalization of drugs is here to stay.
There were some fears when it was implemented, like the fear of the younger generations to accept drugs as a good thing or that our capital would become a new Amsterdam with much “drug tourism”. The author shows us enormous amounts of data comparing the before and after results of the decriminalization where, drug related diseases decreased, higher potency drug usage decreased, drug usage in younger populations decreased and many others. There is still one thing that did not quite work out. Marijuana use increased across most of the age groups.
It might be connected to the fact that “weed” is very in vogue now but it is still concerning, since even if there are not any real health problems related to it, there are many people who just get really unproductive. In this case I speak for myself since I have many friends that got caught in the weed problem. I myself enjoy it occasionally and understand that it is not something you should do every day. Still, the results beat almost every county in Europe and that has to mean something.
It is a fairly cheap measure since you decrease drastically the people going to jail and you start treating them instead. Of course this works in Portugal because we have free health and although we pay more taxes, I personally feel comfortable knowing that my country would not let me die for being poor. But that’s another story. It is true the united states are the best in many aspects, but in this case I can say that my country did very well in finding a cheap solution for what as a “growing disease”
Courtney from Study Moose
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