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Obama: Drugs Should Be Treated as “Public Health Problem”

In an online town hall session yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama suggested that, while he is not in favor of drug legalization, he does believe drugs ought to be treated as “more of a public health problem.” Obama went on to add: “On drugs, I think a lot of times we’ve been so focused on arrests, incarceration, interdiction, that we don’t spend as much time thinking about how do we shrink demand.”

Should these latest comments begin to serve as a basis for the Obama administration’s drug policy, it will no doubt be in thanks to the example of Portugal. A decade ago, faced with a crippling drug problem, political leaders in the small European nation officially ended all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Prison sentences have been substituted with an offer of treatment: those arrested with small quantities of illicit drugs are now sent to a panel consisting of a legal adviser, psychologist, and social worker to discuss therapy options, rather than to jail.

Ten years on, the successes of this innovative approach are hard to deny. For one, according to a study published last year in the British Journal of Criminology, there has been a 63 percent increase in the number of Portuguese drug users getting treatment. The number of new drug users who are diagnosed with HIV and AIDS has also declined significantly, from 907 cases in 2000 to 267 cases in 2008. Drug-related court cases likewise fell by two-thirds. Moreover, Portugal has proven the most vocal critics of decriminalization wrong: most research shows no substantial rise in drug use over the past ten years.

To be sure, a direct comparison between Portugal and the United States is tenuous: At the height of its drug problems in 2000, the number of Portuguese dependent on illicit drugs equated to less than 0.1 percent of Americans who needed drug treatment. Nonetheless, more than 4,000 Americans are still infected with HIV through injecting drug use annually. Plus, the burden drug offenses put on the U.S. criminal courts—an estimated $74 billion this year­— is striking when compared to the $3.6 billion spent on treatment, and as the president noted, calls out for change. “In some cities, for example, it may take six months for you to get into a drug treatment program,” Obama said. “Well, if you are trying to kick a habit and somebody says to you, come back in six months, that's pretty discouraging.”

The full text of the British Journal of Criminology study, “What Can We Learn from the Portuguese Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs?” can be found on the journal’s website. Below, author Glenn Greenwald discusses his own similar conclusions after studying Portugal’s decriminalization efforts for a 2009 report funded by the Cato Institute, Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies.

Glenn Greenwald

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