Portugal: “Lose” the Drug War, Win the Moral War

Portugal was living in a drug-abuse nightmare in the 1990s. The nation had the highest rate of drug abuse in Europe. The registered “problematic” drug addicts (only the registered ones!) numbered about 100,000, that is, about 14 in 1,000 of adult population. The regular “non-problematic” drug users were even more. The law-enforcement was literally giving up on trying to stop the drug abuse and the traffic. Visitors to Lisbon in the 1990s surely remember the groups of youngsters passed out on the sidewalks in the middle of the night. It was a nation that was surely going to extinction.

And then, in 2001, the legislators did something very courageous and unusual: They ended the war on drugs. The government of Portugal admitted its defeat. Drug use was decriminalized. Instead of sending drug users to jail, the “non-problematic” drug users were left alone. Those diagnosed as “problematic” were only required to regularly appear before panels of psychiatrists and personal counselors for therapeutic sessions. The enormous expenditures for fighting the drug traffic were cut, and only a portion of them was now spent on therapy of the most serious cases of drug addiction.

Of course, it wasn’t so courageous after all. The Netherlands and Switzerland have had laxer policies about drugs for decades, and both countries have lower drug abuse than the rest of Europe. But Portugal, as a Latin, Mediterranean country, was expected to collapse under the weight of the increased drug abuse.

Ten years later, Portugal seems to be winning the moral war. Far from seeing an increase in drug abuse, the number of drug addicts have decreased to half of the number in the 1990s, before the end of the war on drugs. The streets of Lisbon are cleaner, and the drug traffic has declined in numbers. Drug use seems to be going out of fashion among the young people.

Weird results, one would say. Maybe not so weird. Whenever the government takes on a task that doesn’t belong to it to start with, the results are always worse than ever before. When the government starts running the economy, the result is economic shortages and collapse; when it starts controlling the money supply, the result is inflation and financial collapse. When the government runs the education, the result is our public schools. When it runs the healthcare business, the result is less healthcare and more corruption and dying patients. When it tries to ensure low interest on mortgages so that everyone has a house, the result is housing crisis and many people left without houses and with huge unpaid loans.

In the same way, when the government decides to control what people put in their bodies, the result is a moral confusion leading to more government spending, more violence, more police brutality, more people in jail . . . and more drug addicts. At the end, everyone loses.

Portugal discovered that when the government withdraws from an area that doesn’t belong to it in the first place, the results are a better and more moral society. Let’s hope America will re-discover that truth too.

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