There is hope on the horizon for America. For the first time in three decades, overdose deaths have stalled. Naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, is hailed as the reason for this decline in overdose deaths. This is a major step forward in the battle against the opioid epidemic in America.
Opioids come in many forms, ranging from painkillers to heroin. Naloxone has been used since the early 70s and has found widespread use by paramedics and firefighters. In April, the FDA approved a generic form of Naloxone, and the results are in.
Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang promises in his platform to “decriminalize the possession and use of small amounts of opioids,” citing similar policy in Portugal to address their own addiction crisis. However, in his April 14 CNN Town Hall, moderator Ana Cabrera pushed Yang about the specifics of his drug decriminalization policy; would he decriminalize drugs like cocaine as well?
Recently, stigma had decreased about addiction as we learn more about it. As a result, our approach to solving the problem has changed. For the last 75 years, the attitude toward drugs was zero tolerance, and the solution to the problem of addiction has been punitive rather than rehabilitative.
Baby steps are being taken towards legalization by many countries around the world, the most significant being Portugal which in 2001 decriminalized possession of all substances in small amounts. The move saw relatively widespread support, many seeing the drug war to be a massive waste and failure, believing that there are better ways to handle addiction than harsh punishment.
But not everybody supported the move, some were in opposition claiming addiction rates will spike and Portugal will simply become Europe’s new center of Narco-Tourism.
It is 2018 now, 17 years later, and the decriminalization efforts have seen extraordinary success.
Portugal’s serious drug problem began in 1974. Previous to that year, addiction rates were at a normal level correlating similarly to other countries in Europe. In that year, Portugal’s longtime fascist dictatorship fell to a leftist democratic coup called what came to be known as Carnation Revolution.
Due to various factors, the country was flooded with drugs. Many experts attribute this spike in drug usage rates to many migrating from former colonies and other underdeveloped nations to Portugal, many of which were outsiders and sometimes criminals, who used drugs fully illegal in Portugal at the time. With the spike of drug usage came a rise in HIV, crime rates, and, of course, addiction.
The solution put forth by the Portuguese government was no surprise. They tried harsher penalties for drug offenders and more money being funneled into law enforcement and the drug war.
Despite a more authoritarian approach being taken, the situation continued to degrade. By the late 1990’s, Portugal had the highest rate of drug related AIDS deaths in the entire EU and heroin addiction reached an astonishing 1% of the population. Drug usage was rampant and little could be done to stop it. With so much resources being funneled into the war on drugs, crime rates had reached an all time high.
With the approach at the time failing so miserably, Portuguese officials understood they needed to make a drastic shift in strategy. They came to the conclusion that hardcore criminalization was not the answer to the problem. They decided to do an experiment which no other Western Nations had tried, decriminalization, rehabilitation rather than punitive punishment.
The new Portuguese policy regarding drugs consisted of a decriminalization of personal use of narcotics. This meant one would not be legally penalized for using and possessing a certain quantity of drugs defined as the amount for personal use of up to 10 days. Drug traffickers do still receive a legal penalty for the sale and trafficking of drugs, although the penalties are just a fraction of the penalty received for the same crime in the United States and many other European nations.
Many were in favor of the new approach, but as with any radical change, many were also in opposition. They suspected the situation would just get worse and worse. “How could making it easier for drug users going to make the situation any better?” they said.
Despite what the statists, fearmongers, and those who followed them said about the dangers of decriminalizing drugs in Portugal, the country has seen astounding and unprecedented results.
The rate of drug usage has been slowly but steadily declining since decriminalization; they went from a country with one of the highest drug usage rates in the EU, to falling below the European average.
Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation; the fall in usage may be because of other factors, but it shows decriminalization does not cause more drug usage. Data as shown in the graphs below:
Despite what refuting groups claim, the drug overdose rate has fallen drastically since decriminalization.
Certain organizations such as the World Federation of Drugs will mislead people by claiming that by measuring “the number of people who died with traces of any illicit drug in their body”, the number of overdose deaths in Portugal has in fact increased. This claim was easily debunked, given an individual can be deceased with trace amounts of drugs in their body, without the drugs having anything do do with their deaths.
The number taken as the standard for the internationally accepted measure of overdoses and drug related deaths is a clinical assessments made by physicians, rather than toxicological tests. According to this measure, deaths due to drug use or overdose have decreased significantly – from approximately 80 in 2001, to 16 in 2012. This correlation may be indicative of causation due to the fact drug users have safer environments and methods to use than previous to decriminalization.
Drug related HIV and AIDs diagnosis’ have been steadily decreasing since decriminalization. This is another example where correlation can actually be attributed to causation. Decriminalization put an emphasis on harm reduction, and allowed addicts to more easily use in clean environments. Below is a graph of newly diagnosed cases of HIV and AIDS among drug users.
As you can probably tell, in relation to drug harm statistics, decriminalization in Portugal has been a very large success. Although this is by no means a final solution, and it is far from a libertarian ideal for personal responsibility of the substances you consume without state interference.
This is in an essential step in the right direction, though.
The direction of convincing the world that not only is it immoral for the state to impose its will on its subjects through the initiation of force, but it is self-defeating to do so. The authoritarian solution to a problem always exacerbates the problem itself , as seen in Portugal before decriminalization, and the United States today.
Portugal has stepped up and set an example for the world. It has shown that the traditional solution to drug addiction, which was attempting to suppress through iron fist of government, is not the most moral nor efficient means of solving the problem. Hopefully, the world follows Portugal’s example and takes steps to end the 75-year-old worldwide tyranny of the war on drugs.