"[...] J. Hari: I think one of the most important things to say about [the revision of drug laws] is that it’s not an abstract conversation. Too often when we talk about the alternatives to the drug war, people start using this slightly weird and arid philosophical tone of voice, where it’s all kind of hypothetical. There’s no excuse for hypothetical conversations on this subject. The alternatives have been tried, they are being tried across the world, and the results are in, and they are unambiguous.
So I could talk about a few places, and Portugal is one. In 2000 Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, which is kind of extraordinary. Every year they tried the American way more and more: They arrested and imprisoned more people, and every year the problem got worse. One day the prime minister and the leader of the opposition got together and in effect said, “We can’t go on like this. We can’t have more and more people becoming heroin addicts. Let’s figure out what would genuinely solve the problem.”
They convened a panel of scientists and doctors and said to them (again I’m paraphrasing), “Go away and figure out what would solve this problem, and we will agree in advance to do whatever you recommend.” They just took it out of politics. It was very smart. It was as if Obama and Boehner agreed in advance to abide by whatever the panel on drug reform said. It’s hard to imagine Obama and Boehner agreeing on the time of day, but grant that thought for a moment.
The panel went away for a year and a half and came back and said: “Decriminalize everything from cannabis to crack. But”—and this is the crucial next stage—“take all the money we used to spend on arresting and harassing and imprisoning drug users, and spend it on reconnecting them with society and turning their lives around.”
Some of it was what we think of as treatment in America and Britain—they do do residential rehab, and they do therapy—but actually most of it wasn’t that. Most of it, the most successful part, was really very simple. It was making sure that every addict in Portugal had something to get out of bed for in the morning. It consisted of subsidized jobs and microloans to set up small businesses.
Say you used to be a mechanic. When you’re ready, they’ll go to a garage and they’ll say, “If you employ Sam for a year, we’ll pay half his wages.” The microloans had extremely low interest rates, and many businesses were set up by addicts.
It’s been nearly 15 years since this experiment began, and the results are in. Drug use by injection is down by 50%, broader addiction is down, overdose is massively down, and HIV transmission among addicts is massively down.
Compare that with the results in the United States over the past few years [...]"
"[...] Switzerland, a very conservative country, legalized heroin for addicts, meaning you go to the doctor, the doctor assigns you to a clinic, you go to that clinic every day, and you inject your heroin. You can’t take it out with you. I went to that clinic—it looks like a fancy Manhattan hairdresser’s, and the addicts go out after injecting their heroin to their jobs and their lives.
I stress again—Switzerland is a very right-wing country, and after its citizens had seen this in practice, they voted by 70% in two referenda to keep heroin legal for addicts, because they could see that it works. They saw that crime massively fell, property crime massively fell, muggings and street prostitution declined enormously.
I think one of the really important things, particularly in winning the debate in America, is to look at what arguments won in these places and what arguments didn’t. We found that in the places that successfully decriminalized or legalized, liberty-based arguments for ending the drug war were very unpopular. I’m philosophically sympathetic to the argument that it’s your body and you’ve got a right to do what you want with it. But it turns out that’s a politically toxic argument—people really don’t like it, and it only works with people who already agree.
The arguments that work well in persuading the people we still want to reach are order-based arguments. I think the Swiss heroin referenda are good models for that. Basically, what they said was drug war means chaos. It means unknown criminals selling unknown chemicals to unknown users, all in the dark, in our public places, filled with disease and chaos. Legalization is a way of imposing regulation and order on this anarchy. It’s about taking it away from criminal gangs and giving it to doctors and pharmacists, and making sure it happens in nice clean clinics, and we get our nice parks back, and we reduce crime. That’s the argument that will win. And it’s not like it’s a rhetorical trick—it’s true. That is what happens.
S. Harris: And the virtue of that argument is that it separates the problem of drug dependency from all the associated criminality and chaos that isn’t intrinsic to the act of taking drugs, whatever one’s level of dependency. [...]"