One More Time…Drug Legalization is Not Decriminalization

Zack Beauchamp makes an extremely common analytic error in a post on drug policy. In an effort to refute Water Russell Mead’s argument that we can learn something about drug legalization from the legal opioid pain medication industry, Beauchamp responds by citing data from Portugal.

I am not going to get into the substance of their debate here. I am writing only to point out that Portugal hasn’t legalized drugs, it has decriminalized them. Pain medications are legalized, i.e., there is a legal industry, advertising, lobbying, a government controlled regulatory system, no civil or criminal possession penalties etc. None of this is true of marijuana, heroin, cocaine etc. in decriminalization regimes such as exist in Portugal, which simply remove criminal penalties (Portugal still has civil penalties) for possessing small amounts of drugs and for using drugs.

Everyone who understands drug policy, whether they advocate for legalization, decriminalization, or the status quo, knows that equating decriminalization with legalization is at best wrong, and at worst terribly misleading. Beauchamp is throwing apples at Mead’s oranges.

p.s. Part of the confusion of these two terms no doubt stems in part from the fact that U.S. alcohol “Prohibition” was what we would call today a decriminalization regime.