In 2001, Portugal became the only EU-member state to decriminalize drugs, a distinction which continues through to the present. Last year, working with the Cato Institute, I went to that country in order to research the effects of the decriminalization law (which applies to all substances, including cocaine and heroin) and to interview both Portuguese and EU drug policy officials and analysts (the central EU drug policy monitoring agency is, by coincidence, based in Lisbon). Evaluating the policy strictly from an empirical perspective, decriminalization has been an unquestionable success, leading to improvements in virtually every relevant category and enabling Portugal to manage drug-related problems (and drug usage rates) far better than most Western nations that continue to treat adult drug consumption as a criminal offense.
There is clearly a growing recognition around the world and even in the U.S. that, strictly on empirical grounds, criminalization approaches to drug usage and, especially, the ”War on Drugs,” are abject failures, because they worsen the exact problems they are ostensibly intended to address. “Strictly on empirical grounds” means excluding from the assessment: (a) ideological questions regarding the legitimacy of imprisoning adults for consuming drugs they choose to consume; (b) the evisceration of Constitutional and civil liberties wrought by drug criminalization; and (c) the extraordinary sums of money devoted to the War on Drugs both domestically and internationally.
Very recent events demonstrating this evolving public debate over drug policy include the declaration of the Drug War’s failure from several former Latin American leaders; a new Economist Editorial calling for full-scale drug legalization; new polls showing substantial and growing numbers of Americans (and a majority of Canadians) supportive of marijuana legalization; the decision of the DEA to make good on Obama’s campaign pledge to cease raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in states which have legalized its usage; and numerous efforts in the political mainstream to redress the harsh and disparate criminal penalties imposed for drug offenses, including Obama’s support for treatment rather than prison for first-time drug offenders.
This brings me back to Rep. Loretta Sanchez calling for a “pilot program” of marijuana legalization in California and the Founders’ idea that the states would be “laboratories of democracy“. If the federal government ended all penalties for marijuana possession and cultivation, that doesn’t mean marijuana would be legalized across all fifty states. Each state has its own laws on the books criminalizing marijuana to some degree, though some states base their laws on the federal scheduling of drugs. With the end of federal penalties, a state like California could legalize and a state like Utah could keep it completely prohibited. Even within California, a county like Mendocino could allow sales and use of pot and a county like San Bernadino could be “dry” and fine you for possession.