Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey announced a plan that would send drug offenders that commit non-violent crimes to drug treatment rather than to jail. Governor Christie stated he believes it would give people a second chance, save money by not continuously housing people with drug problems, and free up jail space for more serious criminals. The proposal would require anyone that is charged with nonviolent drug crimes to be assessed. From there, it is determined whether the person has a drug problem and whether treatment would be the best option. Even though the plan still requires approval from the legislature, some conservative news outlets are saying that Governor Christie is going “soft on crime” and “soft on addicts.”
Looking At Portugal
Some skeptics suggest that addiction is simply too dangerous to take a chance on, that we should not shift policies because the result might be dangerous. Fortunately, the United States only needs to look at Portugal to see how a different approach can be implemented, and has actually proven to be successful. The newspaper headlines in 2001 were rather grim, because the Portuguese government decided to decriminalize possession and personal use of all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. The police had clear orders not to arrest anyone that was taking any sort of narcotic. Even though the immediate uproar was great, (conservatives claimed that Portugal would be a haven for drug users to spend their holiday) both the Portuguese and international press quickly forgot about the law again, despite the entire initial furor.
Forgotten until 2009, when a libertarian American think-tank named the Cato Institute, published a report that featured a study of the Portuguese policy. Even though the initial complaints had been that Portugal would be a cesspool of addicts, the report found that “none of the nightmare scenarios” initially painted, everything ranging from “from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for ‘drug tourists’, has occurred.” It became clear that decriminalizing narcotics use did not have a negative effect on drug usage rates in Portugal. In fact, in many different categories Portugal ranks amongst the lowest in the European Union.
Understanding The Difference
The misconception many people have is that the Portuguese approach would somehow encourage a ‘drug Wild West’ because of a complete lack of laws. However, narcotics are still illegal in Portugal – the police will stop anyone found in possession of narcotics and their narcotics will be taken from them. From there, they have to appear before a commission. However, instead of being sent to jail, those found in possession are sent to ‘ dissuasion commissions’ instead of having to appear in court. The focus is on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
The goal is to ensure that recreational users understand the dangers of the use of narcotics and do not fall into the category of addicted, while at the same time attempting to encourage addicts to seek out treatment. These dissuasion commissions have the ability to require someone to do community service or even fine them, but again punishment is not the goal. Any person caught with what is considered less than a 10-day personal supply can’t be given a criminal record, can’t be sentenced to jail, and can’t be arrested. Ultimately, it is important that people struggling with addiction are not stigmatized as criminals but rather seen as patients with a problem.
The number of people struggling with addiction that have registered in drug-substitution programs (which we are still not a fan of) rose from 6,000 people in 1999 to 24,000 in 2008. Even though use of narcotics did not increase, the number of people that sought out treatment did. The number of users that inject heroin has decreased as well, before the decriminalization; the number was around 45%. After decriminalization, it is just 17%. The reason is that the new law introduced harm-reduction programs and facilitated treatment. Drug addicts make up approximately 20% of people infected with HIV, before the decriminalization they made up 56% of people infected with HIV. While it is true that a scientific link between any changes in drug-use patterns and Portugal’s decriminalization measures may be next to impossible to prove in a scientific manner, anyone that looks at these statistics would come to the conclusion that the program has been a stellar success.
Looking At It A Different Way
We are not suggesting that decriminalization of all narcotics in the United States would be a good idea; we have seen the harmful aftermath of people that struggled with an addiction to meth or heroin. However, what we would like people to take away from the example in Portugal is that we need to stop treating addicts like criminals. Do certain people that are struggling with addiction commit crimes? They absolutely do. Do all people struggling with addiction commit crimes? No, they don’t.
Instead of threatening to arrest people for possession, instead of arresting those people that sell a handful of pills to fuel their next fix, we should try to erase the problem instead of simply wanting to punish those in violation. Sending someone that is struggling with addiction does not provide us with a cost-effective solution. While we may believe that “justice is done,” society as a whole pays more money than they would have by sending someone to a rehab facility. Both society and the person that has a problem with addiction would benefit from adopting that treatment. The desired result would be to have someone with a drug addiction become a productive member of society again. This can only be accomplished by giving them hope, options, and providing treatment – not by putting them in jail. In that regard, New Jersey’s governor hit the nail right on the head.