Inspired by Portugal Model, Policy Shifts Focus from Criminal Penalties to Public Health
Matt Sutton 212-613-8026
October 24, 2019 – Washington, DC – Below is a statement from Queen Adesuyi, National Affairs Policy Manager for Drug Policy Action, in response to 2020 presidential contender Beto O’Rourke unveiling his all-drug decriminalization plan today.
“Treating drug use as a matter of public health instead of a criminal one, as O’Rourke’s plan does, is common sense, as current approaches have caused devastating harm–disproportionately affecting low income people and communities of color—while doing nothing to prevent the overdose crisis that continues to ravage the nation.
It’s time for all the presidential candidates to acknowledge that the only way to truly fix this broken system and stop the mass criminalization of people is to remove all criminal penalties for drug use. Possession of drugs for personal use is the single most arrested offense in the United States, eclipsing arrests for all other offenses, impacting 1.4 million people a year. Those who are arrested face the risk of incarceration and conviction, which leads to tremendous harms, including barriers to employment, housing, and education that ripple across entire communities. We need to change course and redirect our resources towards solutions that save lives instead of ruining them.”
Drug Policy Action has consulted with O’Rourke’s campaign, as well as others, in offering policy solutions that focus on health and human rights over criminalization. Previously, Pete Buttigieg also included all-drug decriminalization as part of his platform.
This proposal is inspired in part by Portugal‘s groundbreaking and comprehensive drug decriminalization program launched in 2001 in response to its own public health crisis. In 1999, Portugal had the highest rate of drug-related AIDS in the European Union, the second highest prevalence of HIV among people who inject drugs, and drug overdose deaths were rapidly increasing. Since Portugal ceased criminalizing drug use and began redirecting resources towards a public health approach, the number of people voluntarily entering treatment has increased significantly, while overdose deaths, HIV infections, problematic drug use, and incarceration for drug-related offenses have plummeted.
While several other countries have had successful experiences with decriminalization – including the Czech Republic, Spain and the Netherlands – Portugal provides the most comprehensive and well-documented example. The success of Portugal’s policy has opened the door for other countries to rethink the practice of criminalizing people who use drugs. Canada, France, Georgia, Ghana, Ireland and Norway are all currently discussing ways to end criminalization of personal drug use.