In 2001, Portugal decriminalized personal drug use. Instead of prosecuting people found with no more then a ten-day supply of coke, pot, heroin or anything else, Portugal requires that they appear before a three-person panel, typically a lawyer or judge, a doctor, and a psychologist or social worker. The panel can choose between imposing a small fine, recommending treatment or doing nothing. (Dealing drugs, as opposed to possession, is still illegal.)
Before decriminalization, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with one percent of the population addicted to heroin and the highest rate of drugs-related AIDS deaths in the EU. The usual approach–harsher sentencing and more money for prosecutions–only saw matters grow worse. Since decriminalization, Specter writes, “the law seems to have worked: serious drug use is down significantly, particularly among young people; the burden on the criminal-justice system has eased; the number of people seeking treatment has grown; and the rates of drug-related deaths and cases of infectious diseases have fallen.”
This is startling and very good news. Portugal’s experiment suggests decriminalization is a cheaper and more effective approach than the US’s own failed drug war, now in it’s forty-first year. We could potentially save billions of dollars and help millions of people. Instead of jumping up and down with eagerness to try a similar approach, however, we ignore the evidence. Why?
When people see the world through a certain set of beliefs, they ignore evidence contrary to those beliefs. The war on drugs is a case in point. With regard to the drug problem in the US, the first belief we insist on in is that drugs and drug-users are evil or at least immoral. The second belief is that war is the correct, strong and moral response. Anything less, in our collective mind, is coddling or condoning the evil behavior. Armed with these two beliefs, it doesn’t matter if some other approach actually works to reduce the problem. It doesn’t matter that decriminalization in Portugal significantly lowered serious drug use while also saving money. This result didn’t happen through treating drug users as immoral and going to war on them; therefore the result are invisible. Seen from this perspective, it makes perfect sense that we ignore what works.
We use a word to designate a fanatical crusade against peceived evil: jihad. Given our fixation, dressed up as “morality,” on attacking and punishing those of whom we disapprove, it is no surprise that we’re also fixated on an enemy with a similar, if more extreme, mindset. For we attract and become obsessed by those that reflect our own, often hidden, nature. When Muslim terrorists, however, declare war in the name of religion, we easily spot the hypocrisy. In our enemy’s acts, we see the destruction and not the morality. In our own acts, we see the morality and not the destruction. Our enemies wear the very same blinders. And so it goes.