Add the collective voice of the United Nations to the chorus of reasonable people asking for a closer, more rational look at our policy of drug prohibition. It turns out that, according to a U.N. report, since Portugal changed its drug policy in 2001, emphasizing treatment over incarceration, drug use has not shot up dramatically as had been feared—nor has “drug tourism” risen significantly.
In an about face, the United Nations on Wednesday lavishly praised drug decriminalization in its annual report on the state of global drug policy. In previous years, the UN drug czar had expressed skepticism about Portugal’s decriminalization, which removed criminal penalties in 2001 for personal drug possession and emphasized treatment over incarceration. The UN had suggested the policy was in violation of international drug treaties and would encourage “drug tourism.”
But in its 2009 World Drug Report, the UN had little but kind words for Portugal’s radical (by U.S. standards) approach. “These conditions keep drugs out of the hands of those who would avoid them under a system of full prohibition, while encouraging treatment, rather than incarceration, for users. Among those who would not welcome a summons from a police officer are tourists, and, as a result, Portugal’s policy has reportedly not led to an increase in drug tourism,” reads the report. “It also appears that a number of drug-related problems have decreased.”
“The International Narcotics Control Board was initially apprehensive when Portugal changed its law in 2001 (see their annual report for that year), but after a mission to Portugal in 2004, it “noted that the acquisition, possession and abuse of drugs had remained prohibited,” and said “the practice of exempting small quantities of drugs from criminal prosecution is consistent with the international drug control treaties,” reads a footnote to the report.
The UN report also dives head first into the debate over full drug legalization. Last year’s World Drug Report ignored the issue entirely, save for a reference to Chinese opium policy in the 19th Century. This year’s report begins with a lengthy rebuttal of arguments in favor of legalization. “Why unleash a drug epidemic in the developing world for the sake of libertarian arguments made by a pro-drug lobby that has the luxury of access to drug treatment?” argues the report.
But the UN also makes a significant concession to backers of legalization, who have long argued that it is prohibition policies that lead to violence and the growth of shadowy, underground networks.
“In the Preface to the report,” reads the press release accompanying the report, “[UN Office of Drugs and Crime Executive Director Antonio Maria] Costa explores the debate over repealing drug controls. He acknowledges that controls have generated an illicit black market of macro-economic proportions that uses violence and corruption.”