There has been a push lately in Chicago and across the country to liberalize drug laws. Proponents of this outlook argue that drug addicts can be much better served by treating drug use as a public health issue instead of as a crime. Furthermore, they argue that shifting resources away from incarcerating drug users will save a significant amount of money for state and local governments already struggling with tight budgets.
Chicago has already taken a step in this direction with its decision to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. What’s more, the Illinois House recently approved legislation that would allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Some, however, think that governments should go further and follow the drug policy program being pioneered in Portugal.
Portugal changed its outlook toward drug offenses in 2001, after years of struggling with a significant heroin problem. It decided to decriminalize the possession of all drugs. Instead of sending drug users to prison, the government asks users to attend education classes and perform community service. If it is needed, drug users can participate in government-funded addiction treatment programs.
Portugal has found that the success rate for treatment is very high, largely because people are self-selecting to go into the program. No one is forced into treatment, so those who go are there because they want to be.
Furthermore, officials in Portugal say that the number of people using drugs has not gone up since the law was changed. Drugs are still illegal, it is just that they deal with the issue differently.
Source: Chicago Tribune, “Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001; what can it teach Illinois?” John Keilman, May 1, 2013.