Drug policy, decriminalization, and harm reduction

A recent article on the Guardian lauded Portugal’s radical drug policy, asking why the rest of the world hasn’t yet copied it. It seems now that at least some countries are starting to take note: Norway, in a historic vote, has become the first Scandinavian country to decriminalize drugs.

What makes Portugal’s drug policy so radical in the eyes of those who adhere to more conventional approaches is its embrace of harm reduction as the guiding principle. The Guardian article summarizes it like this:

Portugal’s policy rests on three pillars: one, that there’s no such thing as a soft or hard drug, only healthy and unhealthy relationships with drugs; two, that an individual’s unhealthy relationship with drugs often conceals frayed relationships with loved ones, with the world around them, and with themselves; and three, that the eradication of all drugs is an impossible goal.

This viewpoint clashes drastically with the norms of eradication and abstention that have been guiding the “War on Drugs” for the past decades. Medical marijuana and cannabis legalization have certainly done their part in changing attitudes, but by restricting activism to just cannabis, they have probably also hardened the distinction between soft and hard drugs. Although there are pockets of harm reduction here and there (France and Denmark, for example, recently opened drug consumption facilities), widespread adoption of harm reduction drug policies such as Portugal’s is still met with much skepticism.

In my thesis and my article on the Tobacco Products Directive, I write about the clash between the norms of harm reduction and abstention as they compete to influence drug policy. There are decades of inertia and deep-lying assumptions that need to be overcome, but with Norway’s recent shift, I am hopeful that the rest of Scandinavia, Europe, and the world are willing to try new approaches that are both more empathetic and effective.

Written on December 19, 2017