Should Michigan emulate Portugal’s drug policy?

Thursday, October 22, 2020 - 3:17pm

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Despite the United States’ government spending an estimated $47 billion and arresting 1,654,282 in 2019 for drug-related crimes, the war on drugs represents a colossal failure and a poor investment for American society. As American politicians pursue policies rooted in populism and ignore facts, addiction and other drug-related health issues, these problems all continue to worsen.

In Michigan alone, about seven people die each day from drug overdoses, with about 78% of those being due to opioid use. Those who are not dying suffer from addiction and face both barriers to treatment and counterproductive penalties through the criminal justice system, with fines of up to $1 million or life sentences for schedule I and II substances. 

Despite the increase in harsh penalties in recent decades, more imprisonment has not been proven to reduce drug problems, according to a recent brief from the Pew Research Center. If imprisonment were an effective method, we would see a strong relationship between stricter drug policies and decreases in drug-related crime. However, no such relationship has been shown to exist in any state.

Still, in 2017, there were 12,930 people in Michigan’s criminal justice system for drug-related offenses. In the U.S., about 45,00 people are incarcerated on any given day for nonviolent drug offenses. As local, state and national resources are being diverted to counterproductive policies like imprisonment, they are being taken away from programs proven to help. 

If the goal is to reduce harm while ensuring public safety, we need to shift our perspectives to reflect the fact that drug use is not going away anytime soon. We should reform our policies so that they are based on research and designed for maximum effectiveness, not retribution. 

As a case study, Portugal stands out as a nation that has perhaps come closest to solving the problem. With the lowest drug-related death rate in Europe, Portugal has seen a death toll of less than 100 people each year for the past 12 years, compared to more than 67,300 in the U.S. in 2018. In 2001, following a severe drug problem in the ’90s and a long era of authoritarian control and tight drug restrictions, Portugal became the first nation to decriminalize all drugs. Since then, it has seen overdose, HIV infection, drug-related crime and incarceration rates decrease dramatically. 

Because of its progressive approach, Portugal has been praised worldwide as a leader in progressive drug policy in recent years. But how well this could work in other places, like Michigan, would need to be discussed thoroughly before any kind of implementation takes place. While there are countries like Norway currently following Portugal’s example to reform their own drug laws, Portugal’s plan is not a cure-all for drug problems — its true success remains controversial among some researchers. 

Addiction and other drug-related problems in Portugal, despite significant improvement, have not been eliminated entirely. But still, despite the fact that there certainly could be a number of confounding factors contributing to Portugal’s success, after nearly 20 years of decriminalization, there is no pressing political discussion to reverse their new policies.

What is clear is that if resources were diverted from prohibition to harm reduction, it would free up funds to spend on other more efficient, research-based programs proven to reduce drug-related problems. Syringe exchange programs, for example, have been shown to not only reduce HIV and HCV rates by 50%, and would also save American taxpayers at least $6 on preventative HIV costs for every $1 spent. Despite the evidence, current propositions by our leaders are often populist.

On the upside, presidential democratic nominee Joe Biden recently expressed support for police reform and rehabilitation over imprisonment. Though this idea does represent a mid-election shift in policy, it stands in contrast to the Trump administration’s implementation of enhanced counter-narcotic efforts and praise for leaders who have used the death penalty against drug users.

At the state level, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently announced $80 million in federal funding to be devoted to the opioid crisis, with an emphasis on prevention, treatment and harm reduction methods.  Along with Whitmer’s recent efforts to grant expungement for low-level marijuana charges, these measures represent a major step in Michigan’s progress toward the implementation of evidence-based policies. However, Michigan’s problematic prohibition and incarceration policies still remain in place, despite lacking evidence for reducing harm related to drugs.

While it appears some national attitudes and those of our top leaders are beginning to change, the drug war still has a way to go in terms of its approach and effectiveness in reducing harm. Whatever the outcome is of the upcoming election, it will be important that as citizens, we continue to take issue with policies that are ineffective and unjust. From the local to the national level, if the war on drugs is not serving our communities and producing the greatest benefits for our society, it will be necessary that we consider new approaches that do.

Lily Cesario can be reached at lcesario@umich.edu


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