Throughout the past decade and a half, Portugal beat the “War on Drugs” through decriminalization. The punishment for being caught with anything from marijuana to heroin was mandatory rehabilitation with perhaps a small fine, but no jail time. The Cato Institute measured that drug usage rates have not increased since the policy was enacted in 2001. The Atlantic nation has seen a significant decline in sexually transmitted diseases, overdoses, and HIV rates. An acknowledgement of the problem, rather than simply outlawing it, has created an atmosphere free of the stigma that frightens drug users from seeking help when they otherwise would. With a budgetary transition from funding incarceration to treatment centers, Portugal has addressed drug policy as a health concern instead of a criminal issue.
Why would this not work in the United States? Heroin addicts halved between 2002 and 2012 in Portugal, but the amount of US addicts doubled over the same period. The rate of heroin-related overdose deaths in the US increased 286% from 2002 to 2013. While in Portugal the number of drug-induced deaths dropped from 80 in 2001 to just 16 in 2012. Does decriminalization truly make this much of a difference?
Treatment costs approximately $20,000 less per person per year than incarceration. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that every dollar spent on drug treatment in the community yields over $18 in cost savings related to crime. In comparison, incarceration yields only $.37 in public safety benefit per dollar spent. Yes, the Portuguese method of decriminalization works.
However, the American criminal justice system is resistant to change. Prisons, courts, and police are dependent on the money they make from arresting and locking up drug offenders. They are protected through employment benefit programs that drain local and federal budgets.
The Bureau of Justice revealed that the US incarcerates 330,000 drug offenders annually. According to the Vera Institute for Justice, it costs $31,286 per year to lock an up the average inmate in this country. This represents an annual cost of over $10.3 billion to our nation’s taxpayers. With 46.3% of inmates being drug offenders, it is easy to see that billions could be saved from decriminalization on federal prisons alone. The Wall Street Journal approximates our country spends $40 billion per year pursuing drug-offense crime after factoring in incarceration, police, and court personnel costs.
However, the true cost exceeds $40 billion. The war on drugs has maintained the racial segregation of our society. African-Americans and whites use drugs at the same basic rate of roughly 10% in 2013. In a study published by the Journal of the National Medical Association, drug usage was compared between urban (95% black) and suburban (89% white) adolescents. White suburban youth were higher users of alcohol, tobacco products, and inhalants in addition to experiencing more problems with blackouts, family conflict, school absence, loss of peer relationships, and suicide. But these young adults are not affected by drug criminalization. The black urban youth is targeted by the War on Drugs as “African Americans compromise 14% of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses.”
Senator Rand Paul is one of the few outliers who recognizes this:
“The people going to jail for this (possession) are poor people, often African-Americans and often Hispanics, and yet the rich kids who use drugs aren’t. I personally think that this is a crime for which the only victim is the individual, and I think that America has to take a different attitude. I would like to see more rehabilitation and less incarceration.”
As convicted felons, African-Americans are barred from education, jobs, and the voters box in the name of justice. But there is no justice; Portugal has shown us treatment is better than incarceration. The only justice here is the $40 billion check Congress writes every year from our pockets to “fix” the issue. Behind the mask of a noble war on drugs, the oppression of millions of Americans lurks. It affects each of us every single day, and it doesn’t matter if you are a drug user or not. Your tax dollars are funding racial inequality.