As I perused the most recent (April, 2019) issue of Reason, I came across a statistic that made my jaw (figuratively, of course) hit the floor:

The annual rate drug of overdose deaths in Portugal is now 1 per 170,000 citizens. The figure is 33 times higher in the U.S., at 1 per 5,100 Americans.

Those who’ve been following the War on Drugs know that Portugal decriminalized all drugs back in 2001. Theirs wasn’t full legalization, but it turned possession of quantities less than a ten day supply into an administrative offense, rather than a criminal one. The nation turned its focus and resources from prosecution to treatment and other forms of assistance. The naysayers’ and chicken-littles’ predictions of an explosion in drug use not only proved false, the evidence suggests an actual decrease in use and abuse.

As we debate what to do about the opioid epidemic, which claimed nearly 50,000 lives in 2017, we might consider a long-standing colloquial definition:

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Despite half a century’s utter failure, the War on (some) Drugs has been stepped up against opiates, including changes meant to reduce prescribing and dispensing. Then there’s the interdiction effort. Trump has suggested (more than suggested, actually), that his southern border wall is part of the solution for the opioid crisis, and for the illegal drug trade more generally. He ignores the realities, which include a – that state-level legalizations of pot have significantly reduced the Mexican drug cartels’ trafficking in that substance, and b – that the vast majority of opiate trafficking seizures, including the dreaded fentanyl, are at legal ports of entry, which tells us that the stuff’s not coming in via the dusty South.

He and the other drug warriors are also ignoring the causative chain that’s driving the opiate epidemic. As the clampdown on legal dispensing of opiates intensifies, more and more people turn to the black market, where the concentration and purity of street heroin is increasingly uncertain, especially because fentanyl’s 100x greater potency allows traffickers to portion many more doses out of a single unit weight of smuggled narcotics. Junkies don’t want to die, they just want their high. They don’t set out to overdose, but street-corner dealers aren’t exactly conforming to product purity standards or providing assurances as to the potency of their product.

Even a partial replication of Portugal’s success with decriminalization and treatment would save thousands of lives each year, perhaps tens of thousands. In an age where politicians are tripping all over themselves to ban “assault weapons,” a ban unlikely to save any lives given how relatively few murders are committed with them and how easily murder can be committed with other weapons, it’s morally abhorrent to ignore the lesson from Portugal in favor of doubling-down on policies that exacerbated the problem in the first place.

The urge to ban behaviors we don’t like is strong, even when those behaviors don’t affect us. It’s in our nature to condemn things that others do that we don’t like, and it’s really easy to do when all we have to do is vote for someone who’ll take up our cause.

But, someone sitting at home and getting high off OxyContin doesn’t adversely impact you or me. Yes, I’ve heard the arguments – that their lost productivity harms society, that they turn to crime to feed their habits, that their treatment costs tax dollars. However, there are recreational drug users who are fully functioning members of society, and there are teetotalers who are welfare and public assistance leeches, so it’s by no means a given that Junkie Joe is actually a burden on you. As for crimes against others committed by users? Punish for those crimes, not for the drug use. Stop trying to tell others how to live their lives. It doesn’t work, and it kills people.

And, pay attention to the lessons of history, even (and especially) when they contradict your preconceptions and pet theories. None of us knows everything, and each of us benefits from reassessing our beliefs from time to time.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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