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Legalizing all forms of controlled substances may just sound like the makings of a government-sanctioned rave but it could actually have nation-wide social and health benefits if instigated properly. The Liberal logic behind legalizing marijuana is that – among other things – it would lower the number of incarcerations for petty crimes. To extend that logic, if more dangerous drugs were decriminalized, people would have more resources to use them safely, get help for addiction, and violent crime rates may even go down. Seem like random speculation? Portugal decriminalized personal amounts of all drugs in 2001 and they have seen all those benefits and more.

Portugal changed their approach to combating illegal drug use from viewing it as a criminal problem to a public health issue and it seems to have worked wonders in the country. A lot of that success is due to the fact that the government also increased their social support services along with decriminalizing drugs. Instead of throwing addicts behind bars, they provide help with battling addiction, mental health, reintegrating back into society and finding affordable housing and jobs. With the current and ever-growing opioid epidemic here in Canada, those options for helping people look a whole lot better for the population than filling prisons with people who were prescribed too many painkillers and now can’t get off them. What if we all focused on rehabilitation instead of punishment?

The numbers say it all: Portugal has decreased their number of active addicts, instances of HIV, violent crime and most notably, the number of overdoses in the country. In Portugal, there are three drug-related deaths per million in the country compared to Canada’s 79 per million. They must be doing something right.

As with any radical plan or change in policy, there will be people resistant to the change. Critics of Portugal’s plan say that decriminalization will increase the likelihood of use or make the government look soft on drugs and crime, but Ian Culbert of the Canadian Public Health Association says there is no evidence to support those claims.

“In fact, the only risk is that we’re going to start treating people like human beings and not like criminals and giving them the proper supports to reintegrate them into society,” Culbert told Your Morning, “And who knows, we might even save tax dollars because it’s cheaper to support people and give them treatment to fight their addiction than it is to incarcerate them.”

Culbert pointed out that the most significant obstacle to instigating Portugal-inspired drug laws in Canada would be the mentality of the people. We have been indoctrinated to see addiction and chronic drug use as a weakness or criminal activity rather than an illness. We would have to collectively change our attitudes toward the entire public health issue in order to truly make that change in our justice system.

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