As Australia continues its intransigence towards cannabis law reform, other countries are taking the lead and instigating decriminalisation measures with positive effects. The most obvious example of this is Portugal, who in 2001 decriminalised all illicit drugs. According to the British Journal of Criminology, in the decade since, teen drug use has decreased and HIV/AIDS-related deaths are on the decline. Adult drug use did increase, but not to the extent that it did in surrounding countries during the same time.
Alex Stevens, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Kent, who co-wrote the British Criminology report, emphasised the beneficial impact decriminalisation had on the state’s financial and judiciary resources, “They saved themselves a lot of money and stopped inflicting so much harm on people through the criminal justice system.” This is possibly the most pertinent point when it comes to the advantages of cannabis reform: the amount of money saved by the state and the taxpayer. Former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nick Cowdery flagged this over ten years ago, stating in 2001 that prosecuting drug crime was “…costing time, it’s costing money, it’s costing lives, it’s achieving nothing other than creating more crime, which I then have to prosecute.” Earlier this year he called for the complete legalisation of illicit drugs, switching the state’s role from punishing users to administering the country’s supply, in which case the revenue created would go into initiating drug support programs and addiction clinics. This is a point Stevens brings up in his report, “Releasing funds [from enforcement] allows you to spend more on treatment.”
Under Portugal’s decriminalised system, an offender does not face a criminal court but a small committee, made up of a medical expert, a lawyer and a social worker. They will not send you to jail but advise you on a treatment schedule or a support regime within the community depending on the circumstance of your offence, mainly whether you are an addict or not. Many who are deemed not to be addicted will often be released without penalty while addicts will often incur penalties such as losing one’s drivers license. Many people believed that the decriminalisation by Portugal would draw an inordinate amount of vagrants and party-seekers to the country, but this has not happened.
So how does that sound? Instead of having a permanent mark next to your name for smoking some weed on a Friday or Saturday night, Portugal’s system actually takes a realistic approach to cannabis use: that, when used appropriately, it isn’t going to kill you or do you significant harm. In the case of addicts, they are prescribed proper treatment or rehabilitation. I think all of us would agree that cannabis addiction is not a good thing – it can easily waste a young mind when used excessively. Yet Portugal has a system that targets addiction, hoping to rid it from the user. Doesn’t this sound like the kind of just system Australia should employ?
In the next blog post we will discuss two more countries with a progressive stance on illicit drugs: Uruguay and Spain.