Legalising drugs: lessons from Portugal


2:21 pm - May 12th 2009

by Martin Robbins    


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Back in 2001, the Portuguese government defied stiff opposition from right-wing groups to decriminalise drug use, making drug laws far more liberal than even the Netherlands.

The right predicted Bad Things: Drug use would explode, tourists would travel from far and wide to get high on the streets of Lisbon, law and order would collapse, and people would start riding around in modified cars and fighting in Thunderdomes. The reality was quite different as two reports published in the last 18 months have demonstrated, the Libertarian Cato Institute have declared the policy an undisputed success on the basis of a report by Glenn Greenwald, and this has been a popular assessment among liberal people.

How correct is it though? Let’s look at the evidence.

The changes were made in July 2001, and it’s important to be clear about what they mean. The new law decriminalised the use, possession and acquisition of all illicit substances for persona use. This is not the same as legalisation. What it meant was that the legal response to drug use would be changed. Instead of penal punishments – fines or prison – users would be referred to “Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction” (Comissões para a Dissuasão da Toxicodependência – CDTs).

These CDTs are panels made up of three people – a social worker, legal advisor and medical professional – supported by technical experts. The police refer people caught in possession to the panel, and the panels work to institute sanctions designed to help the offender with their drug problem. In short, the system is designed to redefine drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue.

It’s also important to realise that this wasn’t a policy implemented in isolation. At the same time, a wide range of public health initiative were brought in, for example increasing the size of drug-treatment programs, and improving drug awareness education in schools. On the law and order front, the strategy of the police became more focused on the drug trafficking network – dealers and distributors.

It was partly because things were looking so bad that the government were able to push through such a radical agenda. Anyway, let’s take a look at Greenwald’s assessment of the situation in 2009 for the Cato Institute.

As you would expect from a Libertarian organisation, the Cato report is eager to present the case that the decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal has been a complete success story, and I’ll be honest, they have a good case. Greenwald excitedly concludes from his analysis of the data that:

“The data show that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success. Within this success lie self-evident lessons that should guide drug policy debates around the world.”

The problem with Greenwald’s Cato report is that his analysis of the facts starts to get rather muddled. Consider this extract on adolescent and post-adolescent age-groups:

“Prevalence rates for the 15–24 age group have increased only very slightly, whereas the rates for the critical 15–19 age group—critical because such a substantial number of young citizens begin drug usage during these years—have actually decreased in absolute terms since decriminalization.

“Perhaps most strikingly, while prevalence rates for the period from 1999 to 2005, for the 16–18 age group, increased somewhat for cannabis (9.4 to 15.1 percent) and for drugs generally (12.3 to 17.7 percent), the prevalence rate decreased during that same period for heroin (2.5 to 1.8 percent), the substance that Portuguese drug officials believed was far and away the most socially destructive.”

What the above basically demonstrates is that if you cherry-pick the right start years and end years for an age-group, you can get almost any result you want. I’ve also picked on this quote because it’s a good example of some of the wordplay used in the report. An increase of over 60% in cannabis use and 40% in general drug use is described as “increased somewhat”, and notice the slightly subjective selection of heroin as the most important variable.

In short, while the liberal side of me really wants to believe the Cato report, I’m not convinced.

The more sober and scientific Beckley foundation report from 2007. They present the same data, and agree with the Cato report that while cannabis use has increased, heroin use has decreased, there has been an increase in people seeking drug treatment, and a decrease in drug-related deaths. Additionally they make the observation that:

“Decriminalization has enabled earlier intervention and more targeted and therapeutic responses to drug users, increased collaboration across a network of services and the increased attention to adopting policies that work. This is perceived to be reducing the level of current and future drug use and harm.”

Naturally, liberal, libertarian and left-leaning commentators have leapt on these results as evidence of two things: that Portugal’s drug policies have worked; and that they should be implemented elsewhere. I really want to agree with this, but on the basis of the evidence presented this can’t be demonstrated.

Problem with Cato’s conclusions
There are two basic problems which mean that the science cannot yet support the conclusions that the Cato institute have enthusiastically drawn from the Portuguese experiment.

The first point is that there have been genuine problems with this policy. Yes, the situation with heroin has improved, but at the same time use of some other drugs has increased, and there is some suspicion that occasional drug use may have increased. There’s also the cost in terms of money, manpower and resources: even those in favour of the current policy have conceded that state infrastructure has not kept pace with things like the increase in the numbers of people seeking treatment.

The second and even bigger issue is the role of natural variation in drug use. One of the mantras of science is that correlation does not imply causation – just because certain metrics of drug use changed after 2001, it does not logically follow that drugs policies must have been the cause.

There is actually precious little evidence that drugs policies significantly affect the use of drugs, or if so to what extent. Even measuring drug use accurately is difficult, and it’s unlikely that any of the figures presented are particularly accurate. This makes the conclusions of the Cato report unscientific and unfounded.

But there are a couple of other points that liberals can take hold of and pursue.

The first is that right-wing groups predicted disaster when the laws were liberalised, and this simply did not happen. Drug use in many categories decreased, and while it increased in some areas (notably cannabis), these increases were far too small to offset the overall trend, which has been downwards. Heroin was a major problem, along with the transmission of HIV through dirty needles, but the rates of both heroin use and HIV infection in drug users have decreased.

Nor has it happened in other countries that have taken steps towards liberalising drugs laws. It’s time for this myth to die a death, and for the right-wing to find better arguments.

The second is that there has been a great surge of Portuguese people seeking treatment for drug-related problems. This may have put a strain on social and health services, but with adequate funding clearly this is a positive effect that would be good to replicate elsewhere.

Unfortunately, with a Labour party that seems to thrive on authority, and a Conservative party waiting to come into power next year, it’s an experiment that we’re unlikely to see conducted in the UK any time soon. Which is a shame, because more empirical evidence is one thing our drugs policy could really do with.

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Got ideas for next week’s column? Find me on Twitter: @mjrobbins

Update: LeftOutside has further reading following on from this article.

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About the author
This is a guest post. Martin Robbins works in R&D, solving scientific problems for a small software company while finishing off his Ph.D., which covers immune system simulation and complexity. He blogs at Lay Science
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Crime ,Europe ,Foreign affairs ,Health ,Science

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Reader comments


Drugs used to be legal in this country. Queen Victoria, I believe, was a fan of opium as were many other respectable members of society such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. If the age of Victorian values could tolerate legalised substances I don’t see why we can’t.

We should start by legalising all drugs for a period of 5 years and see what happens.

Well said.

with a Labour party that seems to thrive on authority, and a Conservative party waiting to come into power next year, it’s an experiment that we’re unlikely to see conducted in the UK any time soon.

Only if we accept those as the only options. Giving up on the alternatives lets the idiots win—a proper royal commission examining the evidence properly would almost certainly lead to proper reform of the drugs laws.

Guess which party with a fair number of MPs and a good chance of a lot more has that idea clearly stated as policy?

Why are both main parties so stupid, or have I just answered my own question?

Still, interesting analysis of the Cato study – I had hoped the evidence would have been stronger than you suggest.

@cjcjc: “I had hoped the evidence would have been stronger than you suggest.”

Totally. When I started going through it I thought it would be much more convincing than it was. They over-egged it a bit though.

@MatGB: “Only if we accept those as the only options.”

Much as I agree with the sentiment, in reality…

@Richard: “Drugs used to be legal in this country. ”

Totally agree with you about a five year experiment. The right-wing press would go mental though. The fact is, a drugs policy that makes alcohol legal yet weed illegal is not a rational, evidence-based policy. Our laws make no sense from a criminal, economic or public health perspective as far as I can see.

what I find quite strange about your on-the-whole good piece, is that on the one hand you say you are a liberal, yet on the other seem to be working on the assumption that taking drugs is always a bad thing, and that the only benefit of decriminalisation would be lower usage. For example:

“but at the same time use of some other drugs has increased, and there is some suspicion that occasional drug use may have increased.”

is listed under “Problems” with the Cato report.

Thing is, whilst I agree that abuse of heroin, crack cocaine and in some cases “normal” cocaine is generally a bad thing (for user and society), I don’t think that’s the case with all drugs.

As a liberal, I think free adults should be allowed to smoke cannabis, take ecstasy or snort ketamine, should they so choose. I see nothing inherently wrong with mind-altering drugs per se.

So I find your implication – as a self-professed liberal – that drug taking is wrong, and that decriminalisation is only good if it reduces usage, rather strange.

I think decriminalisation is good for all sorts of reasons
– reducing the power and funding of criminal gangs
– diverting police resources to better ends
– allowing drug addicts on “hard” drugs to be treated as ill rather than criminal
– ceasing the insane state of affairs whereby I am a criminal If I want to smoke a joint peacefully in my bedroom
– plus many more.

I’m not convinced that a virtue of decriminalisation is that it would see drug use go down (or for that matter, up).

to clarify, when I wrote

“I’m not convinced that a virtue of decriminalisation is that it would see drug use go down (or for that matter, up).”

I mean that I’m pretty neutral about what other people choose to put in their bodies, provided it doens’t harm others. When it does harm others, i’m convinced that criminalising the activity just makes the harm to others worse/greater.

Why is it we look to other countries when thinking about social issues?

Labour brought in 24hr drinking believing that we would become all european and begin to drink reponsibly. It, of course, hasn’t happened because we love to go out and binge all night

Its the same with drugs, even if this report had proved that Portugal was a massive succes it should have very little impact on our policy. If we ever legalised drugs here it would be a nightmare, use would soar dramatically and the social problems would be immense. Socially we are different, as proved by 24hr drinking

“If we ever legalised drugs here it would be a nightmare, use would soar dramatically and the social problems would be immense. Socially we are different, as proved by 24hr drinking”

You obviously left you Irony Pants on this morning. People said the same about Portugal, the point being that without actually testing something you can’t for certain, one way or the other, actually back up what you just said. Especially since after the introduction of 24 hour drinking the level of alcohol consumption has dropped, but what do you know?

@Paul S: “on the one hand you say you are a liberal, yet on the other seem to be working on the assumption that taking drugs is always a bad thing”

That wasn’t intentional – my views are pretty much identical to yours.

Basically, the Cato institute cited the policy as a public health success because it reduced drug use. My point was that if you’re going to use reduction in drug use as a metric for this, that analysis doesn’t really hold. Whether it’s an appropriate metric to use is of course an equally valid debate.

Also, this was a study about public health, not about other aspects of drug use. From a purely public health perspective you could argue that reduced drug use is generally a good thing, just as you could argue that reducing the amount of sweets that children eat is a good thing. There’s a difference between that, and saying that eating sweets/taking drugs is always a bad thing.

Martin: Is there anything that you saw which would suggest that figures reported for drug use have increased because of the decriminalisation? That perhaps the increase isn’t necessarily down to increased take up but a more liberal attitude on admitting to drug use?

@Lee Griffin:

Exactly. Data from other countries may not always be applicable or reliable, but it’s far better than no data at all, and ultimately the key is to be willing to go and look for evidence, and if it doesn’t exist to devise ways of getting it through e.g. trials.

@Lee Griffin

Good question. A lot of the data on drug use comes from anonymous surveys, so I think the assumption is that this shouldn’t make an impact. Certainly there’s no consistent trend showing this for all drugs. There’s also the argument that if changing the law makes people more ready to admit to drug use, it’s likely to make people more ready to take the drugs in the first place.

Ultimately though, I’m sure you can find lots of problems with these sorts of assumptions, and it kind of highlights how hard it is to get an accurate picture of drug use in the first place…

14. Ken McKenzie

Good piece Martin, and good to see critical scrutiny given to a claim that we’d like to be true but seems overpromoted. We need more of this kind of piece.

Anonymous surveys are probably one of the least bad ways of gathering this data, but it’s always going to be tough to get an accurate figures, as you say.

15. mellowmund

Isn’t it more important looking at the effects of drug use (related crime, social probs etc) rather then the drug use itself. Aren’t those the real problems? Or are we in the business of telling people how to die.

@Martin #10

good points, agreed on all counts.

17. Shatterface

This is an excellent, well balanced article and I’m also glad you seam to agree with Paul S’s comment that reduction of drug use is not necessarily the priority.

As someone who enjoys getting out of his nut occasionally (and only occasionally) I wish I didn’t have to deal with so many unsavoury characters and I also wish there was some sort of quality control: unfortunately that required full legalization, not simply decriminalizaztion.

It’s a start though.

18. Phil E. Drifter

It’s to replace outlawed slave labor with prison labor.

Read tinyurl.com/1mn (short, 20 min read) and tinyurl.com/potconviction (much longer, simply a table of contents to the first 9 chapters of work which became ‘The Marijuana Conviction’ first published in 1974 and available now from half.com, researched and written by two UVa law professors, Whitebread and Bonnie.)

Thanks for that Phil. It is a fascinating read.

I take Paul S’s line on this somewhat. The purpose of decriminalisation (and ideally legalisation) is really about reducing the wider social consequences of illegal drugs (gangs, violence, acquisitive crime etc.), not necessarily to reduce drug use once it has been separated from other criminal activity. I would go further and suggest that cocaine in moderate amounts, and well controlled use of heroin is not necessarily an especially bad feature of an individual or a society. It often is, just as alcohol can play a role in ruining lives too, but in a way that isn’t really amenable to criminal intervention.

I am against treating drug use as an inherent medical problem too. Medicine is sometimes a backstop after the criminal justice system has failed to stop something that society doesn’t approve of, and I think it demeans the medical profession and threaten to turn doctors into whitecoated enforcers (c.f. homosexuality in the decades before it was finally legalised).

21. Shatterface

Nick has a point about medicalising the issue: when presented with a social issue the medical profession can be very authoritarian.

It seems that a national perspective on drug policy is very dangerous. For all the successes in Portugal, and though small they do seem significant, the main evils caused by drugs will continue.

Without legitimising the supply chain drug producing and trafficking countries will continue to be screwed over, no matter how “progressive” the domestic harm reduction policy.

This article is very well written. Thanks for the information Martin!

This can’t be right – everybody agrees with each other!

One comment I will make on this with respect to the people talking concerned about “medicalization.” I think you’re right to be skeptical of the approach of medical authorities saying “this is bad for you.” On the other hand, I think it is important to look at this from the point of view of public health rather than just social harm, particularly when you look at the “collateral damage” such as HIV infection from needles, dealing with addiction, people cutting drugs with dangerous substances, and so on. Also, looking at drugs as a public health issue would at least pave the way for some consistency with policies tackling alcohol abuse and smoking.

The social perspective is valid too of course. This wasn’t an article about cannabis, but if it had have been then one of the first things I would have pointed out was that cannabis simply does not have social consequences in the league of alcohol. For me, those two drugs more than anything else sum up the problem – as long as cannabis is illegal and alcohol is legal, it is impossible to make the case that drugs policy is rational or evidence-based.

25. just visiting

LeftOutside “Without legitimising the supply chain drug producing and trafficking countries will continue to be screwed over”

Has any country ever fully legalised drugs, making them available at cost on prescription from your GP?

Kills the crime and the drug dealer ‘career path’ nicely.

And saves all that police time no need to look for drugs on people.

I guess it would cost some GP time.
And maybe more driving ‘under the influence’ could result in more deaths.

So not sure whether it actually save money or not…

“On the other hand, I think it is important to look at this from the point of view of public health rather than just social harm, particularly when you look at the “collateral damage” such as HIV infection from needles, dealing with addiction, people cutting drugs with dangerous substances, and so on. Also, looking at drugs as a public health issue would at least pave the way for some consistency with policies tackling alcohol abuse and smoking.”

Those still strike me as very much a problems of prohibition. And I take a fairly restricted line on what public health constitutes, basically diseases and illnesses that can be transmitted via municipal systems or by ordinary social interaction (arguably sexual activity comes under that, but only arguably). Harmfully cut drugs are primarily an individual health matter since you have individuals choosing to take the drugs and other individuals choosing what to cut them on.

27. Shatterface

What’s really great about this article – and why it’s one of the best I’ve seen on this site recently – is that Martin takes a report which seems to be supporting his own point of view but then subjects it to the same level of scrutiny he’d have used if the report had conflicted with his preconceptions.

That’s very rare on a blog.

@Nick

There is no such thing as an “individual health matter” – all health matters impact on other people whether it’s reduced contribution to society or increased burden on health services. I don’t say that because I support a nanny state, or massive government interference in personal choices and risks, but because if you want to be rational about policy you can’t just ignore inconvenient consequences that affect large numbers of people. Obesity for example may be a problem with individuals, but it’s a public health issue because having a large number of obese people has impacts on the rest of society.

If thousands of people in a country are being harmed by dodgy drugs, then that’s a public health matter, and I’m struggling to see any valid argument that this shouldn’t be a consideration when formulating drug policy.

you spelled LEGALIZING wrong.

30. Carl Olsen

I’m a huge fan of Glenn Greenwald’s (aka Glennzilla’s) daily shredding of the US establishment on Salon.com, but have to say that your criticisms here seem to be valid. Indeed, overall, your article is a well-balanced thoughtful analysis. Let’s hope that the Portuguese experiment with medical intervention rather than incarceration survives its teething pains.

Martin @25

“cannabis simply does not have social consequences in the league of alcohol”

Category mistake.

Alcohol is not the primary product of sale and cannabis is not the active chemical ingredient.

Different marijuana products have different content levels of CBD and THC – two very different drugs. The ratio of content does as much to determine what sort of product it is as does the proportion.

It is therefore an absolute failure to make such a blatantly false comparison between alcohol and marijuana products in this way.

Depending on the balance of CBD and THC and the individual tolerance levels cannabis can have much more serious social and health consequences.

Beyond any restructuring of legal responses to possession, consumption and trade of these products, the biggest single improvement would be to enforce labelling standards, so you know what you’re getting – when you go to the chemist for a headache remedy, it can make a big difference whether you get paracetemol or asprin.

@anonv: Only if you’re an American…

@thomas: I think you’re missing the point for the pedantry. I was really only talking averages. Likewise, absinthe is deadlier than a shandy, and alcopops have all sorts of social consequences that red wine doesn’t tend to. The point remains that person for person, alcohol has far greater social impacts in the UK than many other drugs, and any policy that simply ignores this is not rational.

Yes, but averages are only useful when comparing like with like.

The difference between absinthe and shandy is a matter of how strong the concentration of alcohol is. Where marijuana is concerned it is a case of whether it’s effect is psychotic or anti-psychotic, as well as how strong it is.

That isn’t mere pedantry over degrees of effect, but a serious question of information about what the effect is in the first place.

The comparison with alcohol is invalidated by different contexts in which different types are consumed (as you point out regarding alcopops and red wine, for example). People who smoke a joint, eat cookies or whatever do so in similar contexts, but the lack of labelling about what it actually is they are consuming creates a whole series of other behavioural and environmental problems.

My basic point is that all and any changes to the law and social infrastructure are insufficient to resolve the situation and relying on them to do so is bound to fail. To concentrate on those two sides of the bargain is to waste effort and resources, complicating responses unnecessarily.

Educating consumers about their usage and the consequences of it is simply a far more liberal, far cheaper and far more effective policy.

The reputation of a dealer to provide ‘good stuff’ is as important as it is to have a reliable supply. It also undercuts any criminal element who profit from the inelastic demand of their customers and are often prepared to risk being ‘scammed’ or defrauded as part of their purchasing choices.

The point is that it is wholly irrelevant what product has a worse impact, as this can be compensated for by enlightening individuals about the consequences of their behaviour.

Expecting police or health authorities to clear up the messes of individual choices are both authoritarian answers, but neither provides a comprehensive solution as both depend on retrospective interventionist tactics, not preemptive prevention and education at the points of sale and consumption.

I’m not surprised the Portuguese experience cannot be classed as a resounding success and I expect the additional welfare costs will eventually make their policy unsustainable.

So ultimately we are returned back to square one as we continue to look for a reliable long-term policy. That is the truly rational response – to weigh both the social and economic impacts and create a moral framework which individuals can work within.

I support education, and what better way to do this than precise factual information on labels.

“There is no such thing as an “individual health matter” – all health matters impact on other people whether it’s reduced contribution to society or increased burden on health services.”

Well masturbation reduces people’s overall contribution to society. Does that make it a public health matter?

I don’t reject your point that people’s health status effects other people socially and economically. I am just saying that doesn’t make your personal health and life choices an intrinsic matter of public interest or public policy. The public doesn’t have a claim on you just because you aren’t (through your own choices rather than those forced on you) not living up to your potential.

Just popped in to say that I agree that more people smoking cannabis is (almost certainly) not necessarily a bad thing. The negative outcomes for people who take drugs have a great deal to do with the illegality of them and not the actual innate properties of the substance, and so I think it is a little disingenuous to expect that problems of taking drugs related to their illegality would be vastly reduced by a policy which only takes the users out of illegality and not the distributors.

36. Shatterface

Alcohol problems aren’t related to strength so much as quantity and the context in which is drunk: wine is stronger than lager, absinthe is stronger still but there are few punch-ups in wine bars and absinthe appeals to a more bohemian culture still.

I’ve been in two minds over this thread; firstly, given my job I clearly ought to comment on alcohol in society. Otoh, I am working on a series of articles investigating the social psychology of prohibitions in general, through the prohbited/permitted status of coffee, alcohol and tobacco, and couple of other things. I’m going to make a comment about alcohol, and leave the rest for a fuller investigation later.

The term ‘lager lout’ exists for a reason. There is a resurgent Scandawegian cultural trope in Britain, particularly among Britain’s young men, which returned mostly as a result of the keg revolution. Quantity is king when it comes to booze. It’s about how much you can drink. No matter that it tastes of fuck all (thank you Fosters and Carling), no matter that it varies wildly in strength (thank you Stella Artois and Budvar); 10 pints of lager is the minimum allowed not to lose face. Losing face can lead directly to losing your face, when that twat in the corner decides you’re an easy target for a glass ashtray because you stopped at 8 pints, so you clearly ain’t ‘ard enough.

Lager culture causes fights. I’ve been barman and bouncer on and off for 15 years and there is no question at all in my mind that you can trace a causal connection between lager, lager culture, and the prevalence of violence in venues which exist primarily to sell it. But you will also get girls in Romford glassing each other after drinking a bottle of vodka. You still get idiots in City bars making with the fisticuffs after too many cabernets (I’ve seen it, and had the great pleasure of volunteering to throw two city wankers out of a pub on request of the owners, who didn’t have door security).

Alcohol drunk for taste and alcohol drunk for inebriation are substantially different, culturally. It’s why I’ve had precisely one, marginal, incident of possible violence in my pub, in two years; we’re a real-ale specialist, and 90% of our customers choose us from the available options because their primary goal is not staggering drunkeness.

The idea that the social costs of (for example) cannabis or magic mushrooms can even be directly compared to the social damage done by alcohol is not only risible; it is directly insulting to every woman or child who had hidden from a drunken man on a Saturday night. It’s an insult to every family whose kids are malnourished because Mum drinks the Morrisson’s money. It’s a betrayal of every copper who’s had to pull a raging gang of lads off an innocent father who walked past the wrong pub, wearing the wrong shirt, on a Saturday night.

Alcohol is wonderful stuff. Alcohol is also much easier to screw up other people’s lives with than any other commonly-used mind-altering drug I know of. Those of us who sell it have, not only a moral, but a legal obligation to, not just suggest but ensure that our customers use rather than abusing their drug. Unfortunately, I and my colleagues who take that duty seriously are massively outnumbered by those whose only serious concern is the bottom line.

38. Shatterface

My experience of real ale is that most of us fall asleep when we drink too much of it rather than pick a fight. Maybe it’s because we also tend to be a little older. Also, we talk about our beer. Drinking is an end in itself rather than a means to getting pissed. In some ways it’s more like cannabis: we talk about the best we’ve had, advise others on where to find the best available at reasonable prices.

I agree that lager = bad, real ale = good.

In terms of the public health side of the argument, can you not make a convincing case that increasing drug treatment without decriminalisation is likely to have much the same effect as increasing drug treatment and deciminalisation?

40. Shatterface

I certainly think more resources should be put into treatment (for those who need it) whether drugs are decriminalized or not, but I do think it’s a waste of money to send users with no problems – other than the fact they’ve been caught – for treatment they obviously don’t need.

@John Q Publican – Great comment, totally agree and I’m really looking forward to seeing what you write about this.

@tim f – Good question. The counter-argument is basically that decriminalising is something that helps you to increase drug treatment, as it’s much easier to help somebody if you’re not also putting them through the criminal justice system.

@Shatterface – Agreed. There needs to be a distinction between occasional casual use, which imho is really not generally an issue that the state should be involved in, and dealing with people who are a) addicts or b) having/causing problems due to drugs.

@Nick “I am just saying that doesn’t make your personal health and life choices an intrinsic matter of public interest or public policy.”

Not always, no. I think my reply to Shatterface above basically sums up where I think the division lies.

@Shatterface “What’s really great about this article – and why it’s one of the best I’ve seen on this site recently – is that Martin takes a report which seems to be supporting his own point of view but then subjects it to the same level of scrutiny he’d have used if the report had conflicted with his preconceptions.”

Many thanks 🙂

@ thomas post No. 33

beyond THC, cannabis has plenty of other cannabinoids which are arguably of more significance than CBD: CBN, various other THC analogues

of great significance are also terpenes – aromatic compounds, often cyclic, which interact with THC and other cannabinoids to produce highs which can be uplifting (limonene, eucalyptol, menthol, rose etc.), racey and heart-pounding, trippy, or heavy and sedating: in the latter case this is produced by myristicine, as in nutmeg, often found in “indicas” and producing the “couchlock” narcotic stupour some smokers love

far as I know, CBD of itself is barely psychoactive. It does not, as the stoner myth claims, have a sedative effect. It is not produced in maturer buds, nor on decomposition. It is only produced in types of cannabis which have the gene to produce it: the BD allele. That allele is found in hashish and charas cultivars such as are cultivated in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Morocco… and often also in feral cannabis in places such as the Himalaya. CBD is very seldom found in traditional ganja cultivars associated with the tropics e.g. Thai, Keralan etc. CBD is also very seldom if ever found in any significant quanity in Western hybrid cultivars, including those found at medical clubs.

CBD in fact inhibits many of the effects of THC. It makes you less stoned. Other than blocking the effects of THC, CBD produces a sense of lucidity and clarity in the mind. It may have a thought stimulating effect of some kind. It also has anti-anxiety effects and produces a sense of centring. It relaxes muscles etc. but it does not make you feel heavily sedated. One article from the ’70s mentions feelings of “heaviness” after a massive 3000mg dose. Way in excess of normal amounts taken in by smoking.

The absence of CBD in Western cultivars (which have had heavy selection for chemotypes which get you most fucked up ie pure THC, no CBD) is significant. CBD has the overwhelming majority of medically useful properties associated with cannabis. It is useful for chronic pain, for example. It is also anti-psychotic. This fact has played a role in the recent suggestion that high THC no CBD Western cultivars may be causing mental illness in users. High THC no CBD cultivars have been associated with tropical ganja cultivars from Thailand and India for centuries, probably millenia. The statistics on recent documanteries would suggest that there could be 100,000s of scizophrenics wandering the streets of the UK, let alone in Bengal and SEAsia etc.

I believe the current deabte about cannabis needs to be expanded way beyond its alcohol versus cannabis silliness

legalisation should always be mentioned in the same breath as Fair Trade:

empowerment of agricultural communities; creation of infrastructure; hospitals; schools; financing and maintenance of proper irrigation and drinkign water… regional stability; viable alternatives to unlicensed production of potentially dangerous narcotics such as opium, coca…

high quality Nepalese and Afghan charas/hasish can fetch as much as 14€ per gram in Amsterdam. Fair trade would guarantee that a fair share of this already existing trade goes to farmers in some of the most impoverished and hence volatile areas of the world.

as recently as the 1920s Britain was profiting from a licensed trade in East Indian ganja from Bengal — in fact they continued exporting illegaly into the 1930s to the profitable market of Indian consumers in Burma, Trinidad etc.

I believe the debate can sensibly continue as far as the creation of Appelation Controlee for regional drug cannabis cultivars and regional production techniques. High quality hashish and charas produced outdoors can in fact surpass the best indoor produced seedless bud or hashish. The inimitable aromas and effects are all connected with the particular region and environment of cultivation, as well as regional cultivars and specifice technqiues: hand-rubbing of live plants (Malana, Parvati); sieving of dried plants (Mazar-i-Sharif, some Nepalese); seedless ganja production and preparation. All involve some degree of careful curing. Top end handrubbed charas is associated with the Indian and Nepalese Himalaya. Top end sieved hashish is now produced in Morocco, Afghanistan, NWFP of Pakistan, Indian Himalaya and Nepal. Top quality seedless ganja is also still produced in parts of India and in Lao, though the majority of ganja which makes its way to the West is of a poor quality.

There is a massive potential to vastly improve and expand the quality of outdoor seedless ganja production. It is a market with such unbelievably huge potential that it beggars belief. Serious economists predict that the value of cannabis would only fall to about 2/3rds its present value under a legalised, taxed system. Currently high quality seedless bud sells at around £7 – £10 per gram in the UK. A comprabale quality could also be produced in greenhouses and indeed outdoors.

I think it’s a marvel that prohibition has lasted more than 80 years. I reckon it is likely to make it to 100 the way its going.

Martin @25

“cannabis simply does not have social consequences in the league of alcohol”

Category mistake.

Alcohol is not the primary product of sale and cannabis is not the active chemical ingredient.

Different marijuana products have different content levels of CBD and THC – two very different drugs. The ratio of content does as much to determine what sort of product it is as does the proportion.

It is therefore an absolute failure to make such a blatantly false comparison between alcohol and marijuana products in this way.

Depending on the balance of CBD and THC and the individual tolerance levels cannabis can have much more serious social and health consequences.

Beyond any restructuring of legal responses to possession, consumption and trade of these products, the biggest single improvement would be to enforce labelling standards, so you know what you’re getting – when you go to the chemist for a headache remedy, it can make a big difference whether you get paracetemol or asprin.

You write as if there were actually any quality research linking cannabis with mental illness. If there is some I would love to know about it.

The big question to always ask is: since cannabis clearly is in many ways bad for users, what exactly is prohibitionist policy doing to help?

How about:

Properly regulated points of sale. Age restrictions. Social sanctions. Don’t smoke and drive etc. Honest, clear warnings about actual health consequences. Tar content. Cannabinoid profile. Terpene profile. Country of Origin. Fair Trade.

We at Happy Valley Charas donate X% of our profits to local schools etc. etc. etc.

Just thought I’d add a couple of comments. My research findings indicate the the context of cannabis use (e.g, with partner, with friends, alone, at home, in public, at friends home, etc) and the motivation behind using it (e.g. to relax, have fun, to get out of it, boredom, habit, etc) are most likely to show who has problems with use – I’m sure that this would extend to other types of substance use (as illustrated above for alcohol).

Also found that those who had problems associated with their use (e.g. psychopathology, cognitive probs, social probs) were also likely to have had problems earlier in their life (e.g. abuse, neglect, disadvantage, family dysfunction, childhood psychopathology, etc) – before they commenced cannabis use.

My whole take on it is that problematic substance use (whatever the drug of choice) is primarily a symptom. For some people, and for some substances, use may also contribute to other problems, but if you want to reduce the real harms in society around problematic substance use you have to treat the underlying problem.

To be clear – my research shows that most cannabis users do not engage in problematic use.

I live in Lisbon so maybe I can give a contribution about what it’s really like. First, the use of marijuana is very much tolerated socially, even before the use of it stopped being a crime. There is a big difference in people’s perception regarding “light” and “heavy” drugs. These last ones are still frowned upon (and you don’t see people doing heroin on the streets). Even before the law was changed it was relatively common to see people smoking a joint on the street, and they were rarely bothered by the police (who has serious problems to take care of). So the law was changed, in part, to follow the social feeling of the vast majority of the citizens (specially in Lisbon), that it really didn’t bother anyone if a person decided to use light drugs without harming others.
The problem is it’s still not legal to sell, so it’s kind of strange that you can smoke a joint in city center, but you can get into trouble if caught buying or selling. I believe it’s just a matter of time till this is made legal. But this happens because there was social tolerance regarding the lighter drugs. I really don’t think this will ever happen regarding heroin use.
And also, these counseling sessions for people caught using are basically a waste of money, in the vast majority of cases. Marijuana users don’t consider themselves addicted, and they can do their job a live normally and still use the stuff. So the government spends money “counseling” them, but they don’t want to be counseled or feel the need to be detoxed. I suppose it’s useful regarding cocaine or heroin use.

48. Shatterface

My attitude to heroin is the same as to masturbation. I don’t want people doing it in the street or leaving their bodily fluids all over my furniture. I’ve got standards.

So heroin is just a normal part of growing up?

50. Shatterface

It gives you spots. I’ve seen it on telly.

shut up thomas. theres no comparison between pot and alcohol no matter the strength of either. people do not fight, have car accidents, or any other alcohol related things after smoking pot. they simply giggle, eat cheetos and watch south park. pot is not in the same catagory as other drugs, its sort of a drug-lite.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
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  6. klaatu barda nikto

    RT @GuyKawasaki: What happened when Portugal decriminalized drug use. http://adjix.com/65sf

  7. Vítor Gorjão

    RT @lpedromachado: “Legalising Drugs: Lessons from Portugal” http://adjix.com/65sf . Via @miguelmaia via @GuyKawasaki

  8. titopao

    RT @GuyKawasaki What happened when Portugal decriminalized drug use. http://adjix.com/65sf

  9. Ah_Clem

    Thoughtful look at legalising drugs: Lessons from Portugal – from the British blog Liberal Conspiracy http://bit.ly/iACf7

  10. Alex Correia

    Made in Portugal RT @joaovc: What happened when Portugal decriminalized drug use. http://adjix.com/65sf (via @GuyKawasaki)

  11. klaatu barda nikto

    RT @GuyKawasaki: What happened when Portugal decriminalized drug use. http://adjix.com/65sf

  12. Vítor Gorjão

    RT @lpedromachado: “Legalising Drugs: Lessons from Portugal” http://adjix.com/65sf . Via @miguelmaia via @GuyKawasaki

  13. Vítor Gorjão

    RT @lpedromachado: "Legalising Drugs: Lessons from Portugal" http://adjix.com/65sf . Via @miguelmaia via @GuyKawasaki

  14. titopao

    RT @GuyKawasaki What happened when Portugal decriminalized drug use. http://adjix.com/65sf

  15. Ah_Clem

    Thoughtful look at legalising drugs: Lessons from Portugal – from the British blog Liberal Conspiracy http://bit.ly/iACf7

  16. Alex Correia

    Made in Portugal RT @joaovc: What happened when Portugal decriminalized drug use. http://adjix.com/65sf (via @GuyKawasaki)

  17. David Borges

    RT @gorgul: RT @lpedromachado: “Legalising Drugs: Lessons from Portugal” http://adjix.com/65sf . Via @miguelmaia via @GuyKawasaki

  18. Marcello Larcher

    RT @kaleidoskope: “Legalising Drugs: Lessons from Portugal” http://adjix.com/65sf .

  19. David Borges

    RT @gorgul: RT @lpedromachado: “Legalising Drugs: Lessons from Portugal” http://adjix.com/65sf . Via @miguelmaia via @GuyKawasaki

  20. Marcello Larcher

    RT @kaleidoskope: “Legalising Drugs: Lessons from Portugal” http://adjix.com/65sf .

  21. Sheila

    so what happens when you decriminalise drugs? does society crumble and drug use rise? http://tinyurl.com/onqkjx

  22. Sheila

    so what happens when you decriminalise drugs? does society crumble and drug use rise? http://tinyurl.com/onqkjx

  23. Sheila

    @CynthiaBarrett personally, legalise everything – in '01, decriminalised in Portugal (all drugs) and it's worked. http://tinyurl.com/onqkjx

  24. Liberal Conspiracy

    Our most popular article of 2009? 'Legalising drugs: lessons from Portugal' http://bit.ly/5tEP5y (by @_NeilRobertson_)

  25. Jose Aguiar

    http://liberalconspiracy.org/2009/05/12/legalising-drugs-lessons-from-portugal/

  26. Fausto Ferreira

    a ler RT @x_coimbra: Legalising drugs: lessons from Portugal http://twurl.nl/75huuf

  27. sunny hundal

    @mattleys yes and no… we published something on this: http://adjix.com/65sf – I'd like to go down that route. But no politician brave..

  28. Lady Bertilak

    #R13A #R15A interesting article on what happened when Portugal decriminalised drugs: lessons for both sides http://t.co/Uv1Wcl8p via @libcon

  29. slliW hannaH

    #R13A #R15A interesting article on what happened when Portugal decriminalised drugs: lessons for both sides http://t.co/Uv1Wcl8p via @libcon

  30. Makiko Ryland

    @isaNG93 did you visit portugal when you were in europe? http://t.co/iFN539aV this article shows both sides after Portugal's decision





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