We need new metrics for measuring the success of our nation's drug policies. Rather than measuring success based on slight fluctuations in drug use, the primary measure of effectiveness should be the reduction of drug-related harm – such as overdose deaths, drug addiction, and the transmission of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.
Critically, though, our drug policies should also be evaluated based on the harms caused by the policies themselves. We need to drastically reduce the enormous numbers of people behind bars for drug law violations.
We also need to end the corruption, public distrust of law enforcement, environmental damage, breakup of families, loss of civil liberties, collateral sanctions like removal of financial aid for students, and racial disparities in drug law enforcement, prosecution and sentencing. Our drug policies should be judged – and funded – according to their ability to meet these goals.
Voters and state lawmakers are moving forward even while their federal counterparts remain paralyzed by decades of inertia and drug war rhetoric. The number and scope of state-level reforms provide evidence of diminishing public confidence in the reflexive “get-tough” mentality, and a growing commitment to approaches rooted in science, compassion, health and human rights.
Both Republicans and Democrats – in states from Maine to Montana, and from Mississippi to Michigan – have led successful efforts to use marijuana for medical purposes, to reduce long and costly prison sentences for people who commit nonviolent drug law offenses, to increase access to sterile syringes to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, and to prevent fatal drug overdose.
The United States has almost single-handedly exported the prohibitionist model to every country in the world. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration alone maintains more than 80 foreign offices in over 60 countries.
In many parts of the world, however – from South America to Europe – health-centered drug policies are being implemented that are proving to be remarkably more effective at improving public safety and health than outright criminalization.
Portugal presents the most significant and successful example of a post-criminalization, health-centered drug policy. In 2001, Portuguese legislators decriminalized low-level drug possession and reclassified it as an administrative violation. The explicit aim of the policy shift was to adopt an approach to drugs based not on dogmatic moralism and prejudice but on science and evidence.
At the heart of this policy change was the recognition that the criminalization of drug use was not justifiable and that it was actually a barrier to more effective responses to drug use. Every objective analysis has clearly demonstrated that Portugal has drastically decreased its rates of violent crime, addiction, and disease transmission since reforming its drug laws.