For 20 years The Economist has led calls for a rethink on drug prohibition. This film looks at new approaches to drugs policy, from Portugal and Colorado.
Early morning in mainland Europe two white vans are quietly being loaded full of cocaine, hashish, and ecstasy. They’re being readied to move nearly four tons of narcotics. Authorities have been trying for decades to contain the global trade in illicit drugs.
Portugal and Colorado
The drugs in these vans will be taken to an incinerator and destroyed. It’s a journey the Portuguese police make every month and they know there’s no end in sight.
At a Portuguese incineration plant the drug squad prepares to burn their latest haul. For years Portugal took a hard-line approach to drugs. In the 1990s drug use spread to every part of society in this small European country.
One in every hundred of the population were believed to be addicted to heroin. Simply incinerating their supply was no answer. The country needed to forge a radical new approach to drugs.
In 2001 Portugal came up with a policy that would put its people first. A new law enables citizens to possess small amounts of any illegal drug. It would no longer be a criminal offense for mostly casual users to enjoy their vice of choice. State resources could be focused on addicts; instead of being punished for their dependency they’d be offered help.
Decriminalization has removed much of the stigma addicts felt and the fear of prosecution that stopped them from seeking help. 90% of Portugal’s anti-drugs resources are now spent on treatment and prevention. 10% on policing and punishment. In the United States it’s the opposite.
Since decriminalization, drug-induced deaths have dropped from 80 in 2001 to just 16 in 2012. Over the same period the total number of heroin addicts halved. Portugal’s experiment defied the fears of opponents and broke a global policy taboo. But for all its success, the new approach did nothing to address the supply side of the drugs trade.
Though citizens weren’t now being arrested for possessing drugs, the police were still chasing their dealers. Globally, criminal gangs and drugs cartels continued to dominate a drug trade worth over 300 billion dollars. The countries where those drugs originated continued to pay the price they’ve been paying for over a quarter of a century.
The drug producing countries of Latin America are following the lead of Portugal and demanding change. But it’s the country that began the war on drugs the might just bring it to an end. Here in America they’re now selling marijuana in the mall. In 2014, Colorado became the first US state to fully legalize cannabis. Within a year it had already become a 700 million dollar business there.
Among the new industries biggest players, Medicine Man is testament to the growing impacts of a new breed of cannabis capitalists. 50 different marijuana strains are grown, trimmed, dried and cured to develop their flavor and potency. It’s cultivation on an industrial scale, yet Colorado law requires every plant to be tracked throughout the process from seed to sale.
Legal controls are helping move marijuana away from the black market and into mainstream society. Testament to just how mainstream marijuana has become is the fastest-growing part of the industry known as edibles.
There’s a plethora of food and drink products designed to appeal to a public who may never have smoked. Infused with cannabis oil, edibles offer an example of how legalization enabled regulation. In 2014, Colorado introduced strict new rules on the packaging and potency of these products. For the industry it’s become a necessary part of building trust with the public. Initial research has suggested marijuana use by teenagers actually fell.
Meanwhile, the state reaped revenues of 76 million dollars from fees and taxes on marijuana sales that set to rise to nearly a hundred million dollars in 2016 and with it the funding of schools and the police it’s been earmarked for. Colorado’s experience helped to trigger a momentum for change across the United States.
Almost half of American states have now taken some steps to legalize and regulate cannabis. Fourteen years ago Portugal’s experiments at a bold new path for dealing with drugs. The shift it prompted could be about to reach a critical global mass. Check out Economist Films: