Why Nick Clegg Should Ask Portugal About British Drug Reform

 @JaceyFortin
on December 15 2012 7:55 AM
Nick Clegg
U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, shown here, has called on Prime Minister David Cameron to get serious about drug-policy reform. Portugal has already gotten it right. Reuters

British Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg took a controversial stance on a sensitive issue this week -- and Portugal, of all places, may hold the key to winning over hearts and minds at Westminster.

Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats party governs in a coalition with the Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron, said in an interview published by the Sun on Friday that the United Kingdom’s war on drugs was has been a failure.

“We are losing the war on drugs on an industrial scale,” Clegg said. “In politics, as in life, you can’t keep on doing something that doesn’t work. You can’t keep repeating the same mistakes.”

Clegg’s comments came a few days after the Home Affairs Committee submitted a report recommending that the government review its drug policies.

The report called for further investigation rather than immediate action, but it did allow for the possibility that decriminalizing or legalizing currently illicit substances -- including marijuana, cocaine, and even heroin -- might be a step in the right direction.

Cameron was quick to disregard the committee’s findings, insisting that the present policies are working. But critics say those policies, which aim to cut down on supply from abroad and to take a tough stance on drug use while providing treatment for those suffering from addiction, would benefit from better intervention and education initiatives as well as better treatment options for dependent users.

Most controversially, the report didn’t rule out the possibility of drug decriminalization and legalization -- an idea sure to be a tough sell in a country dominated by a mostly conservative coalition.

But that’s where Portugal comes in. Report authors, including House Committee Chair Keith Vaz, noted that the Iberian Peninsula country -- which decriminalized all drugs including cocaine and heroin in 2001 -- could be an interesting case study for U.K. policymakers.

“Don't get hysterical -- we're not suggesting ministers jump on a plane, go to Lisbon, and start taking cannabis. We are suggesting that they look at what is happening all over the world,” Vaz said on Monday, according to the Guardian.

"Portugal is quite different from the United Kingdom, so there are lots of reasons why that might not work here," Vaz said. "But they give people a choice: go into treatment or go into the criminal-justice system. And the Portuguese, strong Catholic country, actually seem to be supporting this.”

Portugal’s risky decision to decriminalize all drugs in 2001 seems to have paid off. According to a white paper by the Washington-based Cato Institute, empirical data show “decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal, which, in numerous categories, are now among the lowest in the EU, particularly when compared with states with stringent criminalization regimes.”

It’s not necessarily that decriminalization cuts down on usage -- rather, it allows officials to treat drug dependency as a disease rather than as a crime, so the state can respond in a way that avoids unnecessary imprisonment and instead delivers the best possible treatments for each offender.

“Although postdecriminalization usage rates have remained roughly the same or even decreased slightly when compared with other EU states, drug-related pathologies -- such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage -- have decreased dramatically,” the Cato report said.

As Vaz pointed out, what works in Portugal may be unsuitable for the U.K. But a closer look at Portugal’s successes couldn’t hurt.

Cameron disagrees, and Clegg hopes to change that by speaking out.

“I was disappointed that the Home Office ruled out an open-minded, level-headed look at all this before the ink had even dried on the committee report,” Clegg told the Sun. “I told the prime minister that this was a missed opportunity. He knows my views on this. He and I don’t agree on this.”

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