Summary: In the US, there has been increasing concern over the war on drugs, including its disastrous effects on society and how the issue of drugs might be approached differently. One alternative approach is drug decriminalization, which Portugal recently implemented. In 1999, almost 1% of Portugal's population were heroin addicts, and they had the highest rate of drug-related AIDS deaths in the EU. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs (i.e., they decriminalized possession but the production and distribution of drugs remained illegal). In this model, drug abuse is treated as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue; their goal is harm reduction for both the individual and society. This video examines social outcomes after 10 years of decriminalization (for related readings, see this New Yorker article and white paper from the Cato Institute): serious drug use declined significantly (especially among youth), the burden on the criminal justice system eased, the number people willingly seeking treatment increased, and drug-related deaths and infectious disease fell. Despite people's fears, Portugal has also NOT become a haven for “drug tourism.” While the system has its critics and difficulties (e.g., enforcing laws prohibiting distribution), support for decriminalization has grown within Portugal with few calling for its repeal. The video also offers an interesting application of labeling theory. Under labeling theory, social control agents are those individuals and institutions which apply symbols/labels (e.g., drug addict) to deviant behavior. Police, social workers, and medical physicians apply such labels to drug users in the video, but meanings assigned through this process of social interaction differ from those applied in the US and other systems of drug control. In this instance, the deviant behavior is viewed as a health problem (rather than a criminal problem), and social control agents promote more conscious and responsible consumption of drugs. The stigma of being labeled a "drug user" has less negative effects on the person being labeled. This illustrates how the label applied does not come from some objective reality, but emerges through a process of social interaction.
Submitted By: Paul Dean