If you have an hour-plus to spare, listen to Glenn Greenwald talk about Portugal's experience with drug decriminalization since 2001. Here's a link to the video and also a downloadable audio podcast.
Under Portugal's new regime, people found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser for appropriate treatment (which may be refused without criminal punishment), instead of jail.That's from an article in Time. And here's Greenwald writing in Salon.
First the facts: drug use has declined. Repeat: decriminalization does not increase drug use.
Greenwald addresses this and other points. For instance, the myth of American exceptionalism. This is tendency of some to discount any foreign case study simply because it's not here. "The U.S. isn't like the Netherlands." "The U.S. isn't like Portugal." OK... But this argument looks pretty feeble as more and more countries try decriminalization successfully. The onus should now be on the naysayers to explain just exactly what differences in these countries make their experiences so inapplicable to us here in the U.S.
Greenwald also addresses the logical difficulty many have in comprehending how decriminalization could possibly mean less drug use. Even though the facts consistently indicate that liberal drug policies reduce drug use, people just don't believe it. So Greenwalk talks about why. Only with decriminalization can the government and even health-care workers effectively reach drug users. Only with ending the war on drugs does the government have the money to offer treatment and educate the public.
So why decriminalization rather than legalization? Because of international treaties and pressure from the U.S. and other countries to keep up the war on drugs. In fact, in the Portuguese model, legalization was taken off the table from the very beginning. Given the political situation, it simply was not an option. The shame with not going all out and regulating the drug trade is that you are unlikely to get any decrease in prohibition-related violence.
Peter Reuter provides a counterpoint of sorts about half-way through, arguing that decriminalization wasn't so much a failure, but rather that it didn't actually matter that much. But he concludes that the study is, "One more piece of evidence which helps strengthen the argument that decriminalization would have minimal adverse consequences and very substantial desirable consequences."
Greenwald says his main take-home point that can transform the drug-policy debate is that decriminalization won't lead to an explosion of drug usage. "This shatters... the central myth that drives virtually even drug policy debate in this country."