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The public health benefits of drug decriminalization

As marijuana is generally becoming more accepted in the U.S. through legalization in several states, many have posed the question of whether the decriminalization of other abused substances in addition to marijuana would provide any benefits to the public health not only of those addicted, but also to every other citizen as well. In light of the substantial drop in drug-related crime in states where marijuana has been legalized, the benefits as well as some of the negatives of this ongoing debate should be addressed.

What is decriminalization?

Legalization and decriminalization are very much different. Under decriminalization, drugs are not by any means made legal for recreational use by everyone. Decriminalization simply means that the punishment for possession or use of said substances is treated as a public health issue instead of a legal offense. The idea is that these patients will be treated by psychologists and doctors rather than being incarcerated.

Portuguese drug decriminalization

The decriminalization plan in Portugal, implemented in 2001, is a perfect place to start to gain a better understanding of drug decriminalization as a whole. Before 2001, Portugal had one of the worst heroin abuse rates worldwide – one percent of the entire population. Under the initiative, which was authored by João Goulão, all drug dealers caught selling were still tried for prison; however, anyone caught with under a certain amount of narcotics were sent to a correctional office to be questioned and treated by government officials and doctors.

There was essentially no opposition to this plan. Keeping potential criminals out of jail saves a lot of money if the problem can be fixed outside of prison. As a result of the plan, addiction has decreased by 10 percent, and HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases have decreased by 95 percent.

The question of whether or not this policy would be viable in America still stands. However, the political system in Portugal differs greatly from the United States in terms of its health care and social benefits, so it is hard to tell exactly how this policy would play out in the U.S.

Drug rehab versus jail

While it is cheaper to maintain in relation to prison, rehab provides a number of additional benefits. Most likely, if you have been arrested, you would likely want to analyze the options you have rather than going straight to jail. If you decide to take action, then going to rehab provides attendees with shorter jail time. Evidence of life change is also provided when going to rehab, possibly changing the court decision on what punishments need to be made. What are a few of the other pros and cons of decriminalizing specific drugs?


  • Addiction rehabilitation has a greater chance of providing support than prison.
  • The rebellious counter ideology around drugs is changed due to how differently it is treated.
  • The price of drugs and narcotics would likely decrease and therefore would ease criminal activity related to drug abuse and drug trafficking.
  • Drug usage and addiction rates have seen a significant drop since the policy in Portugal was put into effect and violence in relation to drug trafficking has greatly dropped.


  • Treatment centers and resources are not scalable.
  • More people are likely to experiment with drugs if the legal consequences are lessened.
  • Even if drugs are decriminalized, the government will still experience difficulties in regulating the drug trade.

Ultimately, statistics show that decriminalization can be an effective plan for tackling drug-related crime and addiction in the future. However, although Portugal has seen substantial growth in these areas, that does not necessarily mean that all countries should adopt this policy.

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