Thursday, October 17, 2013

Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: My Analysis

Jersey actually presented me with a study about the notion of decriminalizing drug use. The study focuses on Portugal's decriminalization of drug use in 2001. The study claims that the decriminalization of drugs in Portugal--all drugs, as the study makes no distinction between "hard and soft drugs,"--has had positive effects. The study has some merit to it, but I think that much of the data has been taken out of context. Here is my analysis.

The first data point that I have a problem with is the citation/prosecution rate of drug use. the study says that citations and prosecutions of drug use has decreased dramatically since decriminalization. Well, duh. Jersey mentioned this the other day: if we decriminalize it, then fewer people will be prosecuted. No shit, Sherlock. That's like saying "if speed limits are removed, there will be fewer speeding tickets issued."

In fairness, the study does mention that some people say the reason for fewer citations (because drugs are considered an administrative offense, not criminal) has decreased because it simply is not worth the time of the cops to issue a citation for something that is now considered a minor offense. The cops would rather go after law-breakers who commit bigger crimes that result in criminal prosecution. This data point seems incredibly useless.

It seems even more useless when you consider what the study calls the rate of "life-long drug use." According to the findings, reported life-long drug use increased between 2001 - 2006. In each increase, the study claims that it was only a slight to moderate increase. The explanation for this is that the increase is because of a generation that had greater access and experimentation than the previous generation--so the reports of life-long drug use would naturally be higher.

The problem I have with this is that the increase of prevalent drug use only decreased in the age groups between 13-15. Age group 16-18 had a net increase of 7% (there was about a 10% initial increase, but then it declined to 7%). The problem I have with the study is that the study claims that the "most important age group" is the 13-15 age group, so the study says that decriminalization has worked because that age group benefited. What if the 16-18 crowd had decreased in reported drug use? Would the 16-18 crowd then be suddenly considered "the most important age group"?  Plus, one of the charts seems to throw in the 13-15 crowd into what is considered the "key age group" of 13-19.  That shows a decrease in drug use.  But if you look at drug use from age 16-24, the increase is pretty significant.  The increase is fairly significant even from 16-19.

And just as a reminder: age groups from 19 and up all increased, even though slightly.

The next point I have a problem with is the decrease in arrests for distribution, and here's why: how many people who were arrested for drug use and faced criminal prosecution turned in their dealer in exchange for a lighter sentence? If fewer users are being pressured to turn in dealers, then it could make it harder to catch the dealers, thus resulting in less distributor prosecutions. The statistics show that there was an overall increase in drug use, so there is no evidence suggesting that there is a shortage of drugs or that there are fewer people dealing drugs.

The study also says that there has been an Increase in people seeking treatment. I don't recall the study ever mentioning any hard statistical data about the increase of people seeking treatment. The only way that this would be at all significant is if the increase of people seeking treatment far outweighs the increase of drug use. Otherwise, one could say that it's obvious there are more people seeking treatment because there are more people using drugs.

Finally, why did opiate related deaths decrease from 400 to 300 BEFORE decriminalization? The study openly admits that drug related deaths began to decrease before decriminalization, but it doesn't offer an explanation. Does this suggest that drug related deaths were already on the downward trend before decriminalization? Yes, there was a dramatic decrease in drug related deaths between 2001 - 2002, but the rate held steady from 2002 - 2004 and then increased in 2005. The problem I have is that the study does not include drug related deaths after 2005. Why?

Perhaps my analysis of the data is wrong, but this is how I interpreted the information given to me. So far, I don't find this to be very convincing. This is not me being obstinate, or me just rationalizing. I think I have asked some very good questions. The evidence is not so cut-and-dry. Sure, Portugal's current rates of drug use are lower than in the US, but the study shows that Portugal's drug use rates increased after decriminalization. And since the increase was only "slight" according to the study, this means that drug use in Portugal was already much lower than in the United States when drug use was a criminal offense in both countries.

And I found this link interesting. This comes from the US government's analysis of the data. What I find interesting is that this analysis also highlights many of the issues that I brought up in my own analysis. And just so you know I read this link AFTER I wrote this article.  To me, this confirms that some of the information presented in the study is misleading.  If anyone has any updated information, that would be greatly appreciated.

1 comment:

Jersey McJones said...

It's a very interesting study in that it is really the closest example of use-legalization we have in a relatively comparable Western nation, so it gives us some idea of what to expect if we did radically change the law the way some libertarians and liberals would like.

From what I recall, people seeking treatment doubled over time, and that to me seems to be the best argument for use-legalization - it takes drug abuse out of the shadows so people can deal with it without fear of prosecution.

There are many other arguments to be made for at least decriminalization - like scaling down the totalitarian-corrupting, rights-threatening PIC, focusing anti-smuggling efforts on hard drugs and off the easy-catch that is marijuana, or just reducing drug crime violence overall.

Portugal does provide a fascinating study on the subject. To be honest, I think they have it far more right than we.