On 4 October, Portuguese and international news outlets reported a win for the right-wing coalition as a victory for austerity policies. But the latest news shows that a left-wing coalition government may yet emerge, reflecting growing popular anger and resistance to unemployment, poverty and corruption.
The Irish public is being invited to have a say in what is thought to be the country’s first official examination of the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use. The Justice Committee is seeking submissions from people and organisations on alternatives to the current model of criminalisation. It comes on the back of a committee trip to Portugal, where a delegation studied its model of decriminalisation of the possession of drugs.
Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001. Weed, cocaine, heroin, you name it -- Portugal decided to treat possession and use of small quantities of these drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one.
The Portuguese justice minister, Paula Teixeira da Cruz, said she agreed with decriminalizing the use of soft drugs, in an interview to TSF radio, so “there is no highly organised crime or money laundering”. The prime minister has said that the decriminalisation of light drugs “is not on the government programme” and said that the comments made by the justice minister about this matter were made “personally”.
The House of Commons will today debate whether to rethink the war on drugs. While it is only a backbench business debate, and is therefore not binding, it still represents a step towards reviewing the UK’s drug laws. There is a simple reason why the UK’s drug policy is so expensive and ineffective: the law is so old. Policy is still dictated by the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, signed into law shortly after the 1971 UN Convention on Drugs. In 43 years since, the approach has failed catastrophically.
The war on cannabis seems to be slowly burning out. On June 12th Jamaica announced that it plans to decriminalise possession of small amounts of the drug. Several countries, including Mexico and Portugal, have already taken this step, and many others are considering it. A handful of other jurisdictions—so far only Uruguay and the states of Colorado and Washington—have taken a different approach, not decriminalising but instead legalising cannabis. Many people mistakenly use the terms “legalisation” and “decriminalisation” interchangeably. What is the difference?
Dr Hans-Christian Raabe, who was removed from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after one month, this week wrote two rather provocative articles on the Conservative Woman website. Raabe’s main argument is that a better, “alternative approach to the drug problem” would be to create a “drug-free society”. Punitive, zero-tolerance, abstinence-based approaches have been the dominant drug policy model in most parts of the world for over half a century now – and they haven’t worked. They've caused a great deal of harm and haven’t really stopped people taking drugs.
Some 20 years ago, a Spanish official in favor of lifting the ban on drugs such as marijuana mentioned at a UN meeting that there "might be a more humane option" in the fight against trafficking. She was immediately taken aside by a senior diplomat, who told her in no uncertain terms: "Don't say things like that round here, not even in the washroom." Today, the same official says that internal documents are now circulating within the UN that openly admit to the failure of prohibition.
Twelve years ago, Portugal eliminated criminal penalties for drug users. Since then, those caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin go unindicted and possession is a misdemeanor on par with illegal parking. Experts are pleased with the results. Portugal has stopped prosecuting users. The substances listed in Law 30/2000 are still illegal in Portugal -- "Otherwise we would have gotten into trouble with the UN," drug policy coordinator João Goulão explains -- but using these drugs is nothing more than a misdemeanor, much the same as a parking violation.
Partial reforms have their limits. Most drug crime is not cannabis-related. Moving from punishment to harm reduction may help drug users, but it leaves gangsters in control of supplies and revenues. Many countries still stick to prohibition. The votes in Colorado and Washington were hardly imaginable ten years ago and make deeper change likely. They weaken the Single Convention, the illegal trade, and the prohibition industry that feeds on it.
Bolivia will again belong to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs after its bid to rejoin with a reservation that it does not accept the treaty’s requirement that “coca leaf chewing must be banned” was successful Friday. Opponents needed one-third of the 184 signatory countries to object, but fell far, far short despite objections by the US and the International Narcotics Control Board.
For forty years the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 has formed the corner stone of drug policy in Britain. The emergence of new psychoactive substances (‘legal highs’) during the past fifteen years or so has challenged the drug control system. The arrival in 2012 of a new psychoactive substance on the market, on average, every six days raises questions about how best to protect young people from unknown and unsafe drugs. The Government is considering this challenge and we hope this Inquiry report will make a helpful contribution to their deliberations.
Today the Plurinational State of Bolivia can celebrate a rightful victory, as the country can become formally a party again to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, but without being bound by its unjust and unrealistic requirement that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished.” This represents the successful conclusion of an arduous process in which Bolivia has sought to reconcile its international treaty obligations with its 2009 Constitution, which obliges upholding the coca leaf as part of Bolivia’s cultural patrimony.
The Home Affairs Select Committee in the United Kingdom report on drug policy draws on lessons from Portugal’s decriminalisation of drug possession and puts forward a case for the UK reconsidering its own policies. Alex Stevens assesses the situation in Portugal, noting that while decriminalisation has coincided with a fall in the most problematic forms of drug use, it is not the only factor. (See also: Portugal: Ten Years After Decriminalization)
In 2001, a small European country, Portugal, took a brave step, changing its drug policies and refocussing its efforts away from arresting and criminalising drug users, towards smart public health interventions. How did the political establishment of a Catholic-Conservative country come to such an agreement about decriminalization? How does the system work? Is it effective?
Latin American countries are turning to Europe for lessons on fighting drugs after souring on the prohibition-style approach of the violent and costly U.S.-led war on drugs. Until recently, most Latin American countries had zero-tolerance rules on drugs inspired by the United States. But now countries from Brazil to Guatemala are exploring relaxing penalties for personal use of narcotics, following examples such as Spain and Portugal that have channeled resources to prevention rather than clogging jails.
D. Thanki, J. Matias, P. Griffiths, A. Noor, D. Olszewski, R. Simon, J. Vicente
14 November 2012
This report brings together, for the first time in Europe, an integrated overview of the prevalence of intensive cannabis use, defined as daily or almost daily cannabis use (use on 20 or more days in the month preceding survey). Self-reported data regarding frequency of cannabis use from large, probabilistic, nationally representative samples of general population surveys from 20 countries, representing more than 83 % of the population of EU and Norway, were collected through two rounds of ad hoc data collection in 2004 and 2007 and through a routine, standard data collection instrument since 2010.
In recent years there has been much talk of the so-called “Portuguese model,” based on an initiative that led to the use of illicit drugs being decriminalised in 2001. In fact, it is often said that Portugal was the first country in Europe to decriminalise drug use de jure, while Spain, for example, took that step de facto for the first time in 1974, except that it was not through a specific law but rather as a result of a Supreme Court ruling.
There is no reliable evidence that tougher criminal sanctions deter drug use or offending. On the contrary, criminalisation worsens the health and wellbeing of drug users, increases risk behaviours, drives the spread of HIV, encourages other crime and discourages drug users from seeking treatment. A report by Australia21, Alternatives to Prohibition, subtitled Illicit drugs: how we can stop killing and criminalising young Australians, sets out the lessons learnt about the failed war on drugs from other countries, especially Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Portugal.