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Portugal Celebrates 10 Year Anniversary of Decriminalizing Drugs

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Everyone knows that the war on drugs is a failure. Despite more than $40 billion spent every year on the U.S. drug war and 500,000 people behind bars on drug related offenses, drugs are as available as ever. But what is the alternative? What would happen if a society decided to treat drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue? What if we stopped the futile effort of using force to decrease drug consumption? What if we decriminalized drugs, not just marijuana, but all drugs like heroin, cocaine and meth?

We've heard the horror scenarios that opponents of drug policy reform recite: more addiction, more broken families and a crazy escalation of crime and violence.

On the other side, advocates for decriminalization or legal regulation say that we would be better off not criminalizing what's a health issue. They advocate for education, prevention and treatment instead of jail for drug abuse and leaving in peace those whose drug use does not cause harm to others.

So who's right? You might be surprised to hear that this isn't just about hypotheticals anymore. Portugal decriminalized all drugs 10 years ago and the results are in: decreased youth drug use, falling overdose and HIV/AIDS rates, less crime, reduced criminal justice expenditures, greater access to drug treatment, and safer and healthier communities.

July 1st was the 10th anniversary of Portugal decriminalizing drug use. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the possession of small amounts of all illicit substances. Having small amounts of drugs is no longer a criminal offense. It's still against the rules; it just won't get you thrown in jail or prison. It's a civil offense -- like a ticket. Portugal continues to punish sales and trafficking of illicit substances.

In Portugal's thoroughly re-envisioned drug policy, police officers now issue citations -- but do not arrest -- persons found in possession of small amounts of illicit substances. People who receive these citations are ordered to appear at a "dissuasion commission," an administrative panel that operates outside of the criminal justice system. The panel, with two health practitioners and one legal practitioner, examines the individual's circumstances and determines whether to make treatment referrals, issue fines or impose other non-criminal penalties.

Decriminalization in Portugal actually helped reduce the stigma around drug use (without increasing it) and made drug use less politically difficult to talk about. It encouraged better collaboration between law enforcement and service providers, and allowed law enforcement to focus on large-scale traffickers, resulting in increased seizures of commercial quantities of illicit drugs.

The U.S. Drug Czar knows about Portugal's policy, but don't expect him to acknowledge their success. Instead we continue to wage our unwinnable war. June 17th marked the 40-year anniversary of the U.S. war on drugs, a punitive criminal justice approach to drugs that has cost taxpayers more than a trillion dollars, transformed the U.S. into the largest incarcerator in the world, failed to significantly reduce drug use, led to hundreds of thousands of overdose fatalities and HIV/AIDS transmissions, and created shocking racial disparities that exceed those of South Africa at the height of Apartheid.

Our 40 year war on drugs is proof of failure. Portugal is an example of an alternative. It is time for an exit strategy from our longest, costliest war!

Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance.