Drug decriminalization: The Iberian Peninsula

Jaime Fernandez-Pontes //31 October 2018

Given its prominent geographical location, the Iberian Peninsula has been, for decades, one of the biggest hubs in the world for cartels smuggling cocaine and other drugs into the EU. In 2017 alone, 40% of the cocaine flowing into Europe came from South America, while 70% of the hashish smuggled from North Africa was seized in Spain. The region’s proximity to Morocco, one of the world’s biggest hashish producers, and the Canary Islands – where most cargo ships coming from South-America and Latin America smuggling cocaine stop – fosters the high rate of drugs influxes, and accordingly, high social and monetary costs arise.

Solving the current narcotics crisis by fighting back on the same terrain, where vast economic resources and manpower are wasted, simply hasn’t worked. As of 2012, the US had spent a total of $1 trillion on anti-drug efforts with little improvement achieved– and a host of pervasive side effects. The percentage of young offenders charged with long sentences for drug possession of small quantities below 5 grams, which in most cases is used for private use, entails sentences of 2-99 years in prison, thus contributing to the crowding out of American prisons and the thwarting prospects of rehabilitation for young users and small-scale offenders.

Drug decriminalisation on the other hand, could yield better and more efficient results, and bear greater political and economic success to a fight which was lost a long time ago. Along these lines, a study by Caitlin Elizabeth Hughes and Alex Stevens argued that “There is a clearly emerging academic consensus that moving towards the decriminalisation of personal consumption, along with the effective provision of health and social services, is a far more effective way to manage drugs and prevent the highly negative consequences associated with criminalisation of people who use drugs”. There is a weight of considerable empirical evidence suggesting that decriminalisation would be beneficial to society especially if we consider the Portuguese policy precedent from 2001.

Following drug decriminalisation in Portugal in July 2001, when all drugs, including heroin and cocaine were decriminalised – thus becoming an administrative violation, one which doesn’t entail criminal penalties – the country has seen a decrease in the number of drug offenses, and to this day drug users getting HIV continues to decline. The main focus of this was to show the users the need for medical treatment and expose their addiction in order to promote a healthy recovery with the help of the state. This latter point captures another key indirect effect of this policy; support services for drug users can create indirect monetary savings, such as reduced violence and reduced public spending on law enforcement.

According to the AMEC, a Spanish group which advocates for drug legalisation, based on figures from 2003 (two years after Portugal paved the way for decriminalisation) if all drugs were to be decriminalised, the economic benefit to society would amount to 1,500 million euros in tax revenue, and a remaining 1,000 million in reduction of law enforcement, judicial expenses and prison expenditures. Drug decriminalisation would relieve the burden on law enforcement, provide additional funding to cover treatments to addicts and reinforce their efforts to locate the distributors and producers of the narcotics in the supply chain.

Following drug decriminalisation, the economic resources used to combat drugs would be partially reduced as the additional funds saved from constant law enforcement could be used to chase the different ranks of the supply chain, namely the producers and distributors, whilst disregarding the users’ involvement. Drug decriminalisation should be aimed at reducing the number of petty offenders by focusing governmental efforts and public funding in providing better and more efficient therapies and treatment for existing users. In light of this policy, it wouldn’t mean that Spain would become the new drug heaven of Europe – Portugal didn’t become one in 2001 – on the contrary, the same laws would still apply to most members of the narcotics supply-chain. After decriminalisation of consumption for the end users, public money could be used to improve the situation of those in need while also saving some of the public money that would have other been spent on enforcing these outdated regulations.

As Glenn Greenwald has outlined in Drug Decriminalization in Portugal “Decriminalization has enabled a far more effective approach to managing Portugal’s addiction problems and other drug-related afflictions”.  It would be plausible to reject his claim on the basis of the size of the benchmarking country, however, given the cultural and geographical similarities between the two countries, and the precedent where in Spain a de facto drug decriminalisation already took place for cannabis in 1982, further openness on this terrain would allow for greater improvements in the policy-making arena concerning the war against narcotics, and at the same time, set a precedent for such implementation.

The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author only, not EPICENTER or its members. 

EPICENTER publications and contributions from our member think tanks are designed to promote the discussion of economic issues and the role of markets in solving economic and social problems. As with all EPICENTER publications, the views expressed here are those of the author and not EPICENTER or its member think tanks (which have no corporate view).


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