Ross Clark

Do we really want Portugal’s drug laws?

Do we really want Portugal's drug laws?
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'The war on drugs has failed,' asserted Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public health in the latest propaganda coup for the pro-drug lobby. Her society, along with the Faculty of Public Health, have parroted the familiar call among metropolitan liberals for drugs to be decriminalised. Their argument is that we should drop our punitive approach to drugs and be more like Portugal, which decriminalised drugs in 2001 and now, it claims, has fewer deaths from drug use that.

There are a couple of problems with this. Firstly, drug decriminalisation in Portugal is only a success if you cherry-pick your statistics carefully. If you want to make the opposite argument you can pick a few which work in the other direction – such as pointing out that there has been 40 per cent increase in homicides related to drugs, and that HIV infection related to intravenous drug use were by 2005 the third highest in Europe.

But there is another rather fundamental problem with the Royal Society for Public Health’s argument. Britain only has a punitive drugs policy in theory. In practice, we have a softer attitude even than decriminalised Portugal. Theoretically, you can get a 7-year sentence for possession of class A drugs like heroin and crack cocaine, and five years for possession of a class B drug like cannabis. Yet in practice, British drug users can, by and large, snort and smoke with impunity. A freedom of information request in 2011 revealed that only 554 people were in jail for drug possession, and a further 3501 for possession with intent to supply. Even Harry Hendron, the barrister recently convicted of supplying drugs which killed his 18-year-old Columbian boyfriend has not been sent to jail, but was given a community sentence instead.

Get hooked on opiates, and the British state will even fix you up with methadone for free. There are now 140,000 state-sponsored methadone users, each of them costing taxpayers £3,000 a year. Is that really a ‘punitive’ policy?

British drug-users wouldn’t like the Portuguese regime – where, contrary to what some try to imply, drugs remain illegal. Those caught with drugs are hauled before a ‘commission for the dissuasion of drug addiction’. They may not get a criminal record but they can be fined, placed on a compulsory treatment programme, or even have their passport confiscated. I only wish we used such firm measures.

The pro-drug lobby likes to quote Portugal at us not because it wants Britain to copy what Portugal has done but because it counts on us not knowing what actually happens to drug-users in Portugal and hopes that, like the Times headline did on Thursday, we will confuse the words ‘decriminalised’ with ‘made legal’. The latter is what metropolitan liberals really want, not because they are especially concerned with the health of drug addicts on distant council estates but because they rather like using drugs themselves.