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When I was quite young and much more naive than I am today, I was talking to my dad about drugs. We were talking about all the negative health effects of smoking in school, so I told my dad that I thought that it would be a wonderful idea if smoking was made illegal. Within a generation lung, throat, and mouth cancer would be decimated, people all over the planet would be happy, healthy, and less prone to violence. This could save the world!

My dad was quick to point out how I was in error. Drug lords, he said, would love nothing more than to have smoking become illegal. Making things illegal, without affecting the costs of production, would dramatically increase the retail price. The mark-up would be astronomical, making selling cigarettes very profitable indeed. He then pointed out that my grandfather,  a dear and marvellous man, is addicted to smoking. Making it illegal would not magically make his addiction go away. The only thing it would do is make him a “criminal” and put him and his habit in jail.

Later on in my schooling, we learned about the prohibition era and how the criminalization of alcohol provided the financial backbone for a rampant expansion in organized crime. Another solid examples showing that making a substance illegal in no way reduces it’s use in a society, but rather just strengthens the criminal element and lowers public safety. Experiment failed, prohibition doesn’t work.

Now we have “The War on Drugs”. It seems obvious to me, from these earlier lessons, that having any drug be illegal is a dumb idea. Really dumb. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are, nor does it matter how bad a particular drug is for human consumption. All that matters is that prohibition doesn’t work. I point this out to people and in response I get a torrent of reasons why drugs are bad and how they destroy lives. To me this just begs the question ‘If this is so important, why are you employing such a demonstrably poor way of dealing with it?’

Then I get the speculations. ‘If drugs were legal, they would run rampant. Six year olds would be doing heroine, and society would be saying its ok’. This reminds me of theists who claim that, without god, people would go around raping people and burning school buses filled with children for fun. There is no reason to believe that these horror stories would actualize if drugs were legal, just as there is no reason to believe people without religion are all psycho killer arsonists.

But while there has always been evidence that prohibition was ineffective, there hasn’t been much to show that de-criminalization wouldn’t lead to the other ‘greater’ evils proposed by Drug War Mongers. The most I’ve gotten from an advocate of current drug laws was that, while the laws aren’t a perfect solution, they are the best solution we have. Enter Portugal. AIDS was rampant due to drug needle sharing, drug use was high, things were quite bad. Then in 2001, Portugal went rogue. The decriminalized drugs. All of them.

Nations on board with the War on Drugs were quick to predict catastrophic results for this radical move. Portugal was on the path of self-destruction. Soon the entire country would be populated by stoned-out-of-their-mind-gang-bangers, slitting each other’s throats to get their next fix for their un-controlled drug overdose orgy!

But then…somehow… armageddon did NOT decimate Portugal. Nothing close to what was predicted came to be. What did happen? Drug use fell. A lot. Portugal now has about a third the drug use of the average European nation. What about that AIDS problem? Down by almost a fifth!

Of course, it’s not as simple as ‘Make things legal then-POOF- everything’s better”. Treatment and rehab programs were made available. With the extra resources due to abandoning the War on Drugs, these programs were actually good. Plus, addicts, no longer fearful of persecution, actually used them. They actually committed themselves to helping people in a meaningful way. And it worked. Imagine that!

I’ve always been a huge fan of empirical evidence. There have been countless ideas about how the world could/ought to be. Admittedly some of them were absolute genius in there intricacy, detail, and internal coherency. I’ve come up with a few myself. But ultimately, that doesn’t actually matter. What really makes an idea worthy of pursuit is if the damn thing works.

The results are in. Societies always lose the War on Drugs. What happens if we abandon the war and decriminalize? Portugal has shown us the immense progress that is attainable in just one short decade. So far, most of the western world has not learned from the failure of prohibition, but perhaps it can learn from the success of Portugal.

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