What’s wrong with this logic?
1. Drug prohibition and drug enforcement put a lot of people behind bars and cause lots of other problems.
2. Legalization would avoid those problems, but might cause a big increase in drug abuse.
3. Portugal decriminalized drug possession.
4. Portugal experienced at most a minor increase in drug use.
5. Therefore, the Portuguese experience is evidence that drug legalization would be, on balance, a good idea.
[Answer at the jump.]
As Colombo would have said, there’s just one little thing: decriminalization of possession isn’t the same as legalization, and there’s no reason to think that the effects of one give any strong indication about the effects of the other. (Note that what’s called “decriminalization” when applied to cannabis – a policy of punishing dealers but letting users alone – was called “Prohibition” when applied to alcohol: the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act banned production, transportation, and sale, but not possession or use.)
Simple drug use rarely leads to incarceration. There’s not much evidence that the threat of arrest does much to discourage potential users. “Decrim” laws are generally passed in places where there already wasn’t much anti-user enforcement. According to the Cato analysis by Glenn Greenwald purporting to show that Portugal’s policy change was a success, Portuguese police made between 1500 and 2500 drug-possession arrests per year in the period before decriminalization. That’s out of a population of 10 million. The reported rate of illicit drug use is something over 3%, suggesting that the annual risk of arrest for Portuguese illicit-drug users was something under 1%. Neither the Greenwald report, nor the study by Hughes and Stevens published in the British Journal of Criminology gives any figures on criminal penalties for users, but Greenwald reports that the annual number of administrative proceedings against users after the new law has been more than twice as great as the number of possession arrests before the law. Has the overall deterrent against drug use gone up, or down? It’s hard to say.
Overwhelmingly, drug enforcement is directed at dealers, not users. Decrim doesn’t change anti-dealer enforcement at all. It therefore doesn’t make drugs cheaper or easier to get. So it doesn’t provide much of a test of the effect of legalization on consumption. By the same token, it doesn’t reduce the arrest and incarceration of dealers, crime incident to the markets, or crime by users to get money for drugs. (Insofar as consumption goes up, all those things tend to get worse, not better.)
So what we learn from Portugal is that a relatively poor, small, homogeneous, culturally conservative country with a small illicit-drug problem will still have a small illicit-drug problem after it stops threatening users with criminal penalties and starts threatening them with administrative proceedings instead. Yawn.
Police in some U.S. cities – notably New York – use drug-possession arrests – especially cannabis-possession arrests – as a means of harassing people they’re suspicious of, or mad at, for other reasons. Getting rid of that tactic would be a fine idea. So I’m for decriminalization, not just of cannabis, but of other drugs as well. And I’m for legalization of cannabis, on a non-commercial basis. (I’d still enforce a rule against using drugs it’s illegal to sell for people on probation, parole, or bail.)
Whether to legalize other drugs depends on (1) how much problem consumption would increase and (2) how you weigh the costs of drug abuse against the costs of crime and enforcement. The Portuguese experience gives us roughly zero information on those two points.