Portugal’s drug policy has been the subject of intense debate in recent years. In 2001, the country passed a law decriminalizing possession of all drugs (i.e., not just cannabis). Although civil penalties for drug use remained, the possibility of incarceration was eliminated outright. Some claim that the policy turned the country into a drug-hidden hell hole whereas others argue that it produced a libertarian paradise on Earth. But a provocative new analysis suggests that no matter which side of that debate you were on, you were wrong, for a reason that might surprise you.

Hannah Laqueur, a rising young scholar at UC Berkeley, asks a novel question in her analysis of Portugal: Is there any evidence that the 2001 law actually was a radical move from criminalization to decriminalization of drug use? Looking at the 8 years of data prior to the law, she found that the average population of people in prison for simple drug possession was about 21. Not 21% of prisoners but 21 people in a nation of 10 million!. Prior to the elimination of prison sentences in 2001, drug possession convictions accounted for just 0.3% of Portugal’s prison population.

The 2001 law’s removal of incarceration as a penalty was thus simply a formalization of longstanding criminal justice policy. Looking at drug use indicators before and after 2001 and attributing any change to the “radical decriminalization” is thus wrong-headed because no such change occurred.

Kudos to Laqueur for applying an important general principle of public policy analysis: Always check whether the formal passage of a law actually preceded a change in practice. Sometimes that is true and sometimes it isn’t. The original analysis of Portugal’s drug policy, funded and heavily promoted by the libertarian Cato Institute, failed to undertake this essential analytic check. This illustrates another important public policy analysis rule: Be skeptical of any analysis conducted by someone with a king-sized ax to grind.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and served as Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama Administration. @KeithNHumphreys