Why Shouldn't We Follow the Path of Portugal?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

When it comes to the war on drugs, reader Michel contrasts the success in Portugal with the devastation in Mexico:

Christopher Ingraham / Washington Post

Your reader Ethan wrote: “Even small-government conservatives like myself believe in government intervention when critical for safety, and it’s not challenging to argue that the ‘hard’ drugs aren’t safe under any circumstances.” And there you have much of what’s wrong with American democracy. “Yes, I see the evidence, but I just don’t care, because my common sense tells me something different.”

The use of hard drugs in Portugal has gone down, not up. Drug-related deaths in Portugal have gone down, not up. Drug-related HIV infections in Portugal have gone down, not up. Is that not the definition of “safer”?

A bit of Googling indicates the picture on drug-related crime (robberies, etc.) is murky, what with the collapse of the Portuguese economy since drug legalization. But there doesn’t seem to be any solid evidence that drug-related crime has gone up.

Not to mention—OK, I’m gonna mention it—that the drug-cartel wars in Mexico [between the years 2006 and 2012 saw an estimated total number of homicides reach as high as 125,000], not including an estimated 25,000 missing. That also doesn’t include the drug-gang wars in other countries of Central and South America. Are these people, and their friends and families, not human beings? Does their suffering count for nothing?

Excuse me, I think I need a drink.

On that note, another reader asks, “What about alcohol and tobacco?”

I believe that those two drugs are far more harmful and addictive than all of the other illegal drugs out there. The ravages of alcohol and tobacco are well known, yet they are still socially acceptable. So where do we draw the line?

I just feel that no matter how we slice it, people will continue to use drugs. Why not bring it all out into the light?