Vermont About to Decriminalize Small Amounts of Marijuana

The Vermont House passed H. 200, a marijuana decriminalization bill today, accepting changes made by the Vermont Senate and sending the bill to the governor’s office to be signed into law. If signed, it will go into effect July 1, 2013.

Governor Peter Shumlin said “I applaud the Legislature’s action to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Vermonters support sensible drug policies. This legislation allows our courts and law enforcement to focus their limited resources more effectively to fight highly addictive opiates such as heroin and prescription drugs that are tearing apart families and communities.” 

Locally, Representatives Burke and Toleno signed on to introduce the House bill that, as passed, removes crimnal penalties and substitutes civil penalties for possessing up to one ounce of marijuana. The fine will be “not more than $300.”

…a person who possesses
marijuana in an amount less than the amount in subdivision 4230(a)(1)
(criminal possession of marijuana) or who possesses paraphernalia for
marijuana use shall not be penalized or sanctioned in any manner by the State
or any of its political subdivisions or denied any right or privilege under state

There remain criminal penalties for growing the plant or possessing more than one ounce. You won’t be allowed to smoke and drive, or use it if you are under 21, either.

The Governor seems likely to sign it into law.

Comments | 26

  • Decriminalization is another form of criminalization

    If Peter, our good neighbor in Putney and current Governor, were to be honest he would tell Vermonters how he really feels about marijuana. I know that’s asking a lot from any politician, particularly a politician as young as he is with aspirations of higher office.

    Peter Shumlin of Vermont and Dannel Malloy of Connecticut were the only two gubernatorial candidates who included decriminalization of marijuana in their campaign platforms. Both candidates handily won the office of their respective states.

    If either of these men were to seek higher office, I would applaud them as the best we have to offer from the two-party system. (Last December Shumlin was unanimously elected to serve as the chair of the Democratic Governors Association in 2013.)

    Nevertheless, I do wish Peter would dispense with the myth that opiates and heroin are tearing our families and communities apart. What really tears our families apart is the drug-war itself. The very notion of criminalizing drug behavior, in absence of any real physical criminal intent, is a tired old leftover from the prohibition era that we Americans can’t seem to shake.

    While any drug abuse (not use, I do mean “abuse”) can never be construed as harmless or idealized into widespread acceptance, compared to the bizarre and psychopathic laws we get from the lawmaking prohibitionists and their supporters, even the worst drug behavior is more acceptable than criminalizing people for personal possession and use of any drug.

    As Peter already knows, but cannot publicly state, marijuana sold parallel to the alcohol-model is an efficient and safe way to make marijuana available to adult consumers while at the same time the better way to help keep kids from using it.

    It’s too bad in some ways our Mr. Shumlin is a politician, a consummate politician at that. It precludes his marijuana good intentions from ever becoming public…that is, if it’s true that he wants to be more than a two-term governor of one of the least populated states in the country…

    • Cris Ericson, on the Ballot for Governor, Promoted Legalizing

      Cris Ericson, on the official election ballot in Vermont 2002 for Governor,
      2004 for Governor, 2006 for Governor, 2008 for Governor, 2010 for Governor and 2012 for Governor of Vermont did, and always does, promote legalization of Marijuana.

      Vidda Crochetta is always publicly denying the existence of the hard work Cris Ericson has done for over ten years to work towards making marijuana legal.

      Cris Ericson will be on the official election ballot 2012 for Governor and she will continue to work to make marijuana legal.

      • Let me see if I can set a few things straight...

        Let me see if I can set a few things straight:
        >This piece and thread here pertains to current events. In that context,Shumlin as Governor will have to sign the bill when it comes to his desk. The other Guber candidates in the last election lost the vote – Peter won. Therefore, none of you can sign the bill.

        > Until my opposition to Emily as governor, I have not publicly participated in any elections except when I feel the urge to vote myself. My public voice in the last election was, therefore, an anomaly.

        >I was not aware of your earlier candidacies, and, you and the other candidates were generally unknown to me. It wasn’t until you jumped into the threads here to defend Emily from my comments, that I was made aware of you.

        > Your comment following this one, for instance, might be a good indication of why since 2002 that you’ve had difficulty gaining public support. Most of your postings are unbelievably verbose. Most people will not read that much text.
        Brevity is not one of your strong points.
        It’s possible that in all those years it was you who turned-off the voting public. As I said, I had nothing to do with your lengthy “career” campaigning.

        >By not being conversant with your background, I would have difficulty either denying or supporting your work. Your public style and persona, however, is a matter of public record as it appears on these pages.

        >I think you can dispense with this thing between you and me. I can recommend that for future campaigns that you tone-down your attacks and present your case to the public in a succinct and cogent manner that gives them a chance to get to know you better. You have good ideas to offer, but people might be turning a deaf ear to you.

        >Good luck in your future campaigning.

    • Cris Ericson, on the Ballot for Governor, Promoted Legalizing
      See Cris Ericson for Governor 2012
      and see Cris Ericson for U.S. Senate 2012

      CONTINUES with Cris Ericson
      leaving the U.S. Marijuana Party in Vermont
      and now becoming an
      independent candidate 2014!

      The domain is no
      longer in business.
      The NEW domain

      Vermont perennial political candidate,
      Cris Ericson, has spent ten years
      trying to make marijuana legal,
      and she will continue her campaign
      to legalize marijuana in 2014.

      Press Release: Cris Ericson
      is running for U.S. Congress 2014
      Cris Ericson is running for
      Governor of Vermont 2014

      Political candidate
      television resume:

      You can enjoy many hours viewing past
      election debates including Cris Ericson,
      and special programs produced by
      Cris Ericson, just click these links!

      Cris Ericson has previously been on the official
      election ballot in the State of Vermont
      2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012.


      Please note that although Cris Ericson ran against
      U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy in 2004 and 2010,
      those live televised debates seem to have
      been eradicated from the internet. But, there’s
      plenty more to see of Cris Ericson in other debates!

      You will miss seeing U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy
      pounding his fist on the debate table at CCTV in 2010
      in Burlington, Vermont when Cris Ericson stated
      that the reason women should not be in combat
      in Afghanistan is that Afghanistans use blood sniffing dogs
      and they can sniff out women soldiers menstruating and
      put them at a disadvantage. BANG! Leahy’s fist
      hits the table! What’s the matter Senator Leahy,
      can’t you stand to hear common sense?

      Obviously, the most entertaining debates are missing,
      the ones where Cris Ericson confronts
      United States Senator Patrick Leahy,
      …oh well, watch these other debates instead!
      (Please let us know if you can find links to the missing
      2004 and 2010 U.S. Senate debates in Vermont, )
      2012 U.S. Senate Candidate Cris Ericson
      Oct. 25, 2012 Vermont U.S. Senate Debate,
      1 hour, 25 minutes
      includes candidate Cris Ericson

      Cris Ericson on CCTV in Burlington, Vermont

      2012 Vermont Candidates for Governor –
      Emily Peyton (I), Cris Ericson (Marijuana Party),
      Dave Eagle (LU).

      [ Peter Shumlin (D), Randy Brock (R),
      and Annette Smith (Write-in for Governor)
      are not attending the forum.]

      2012 Candidates for Vermont US Senate include:
      John MacGovern (R), Bernie Sanders (I/D/P),
      Cris Ericson (USMJP), Laurel LaFramboise (VoteKISS),
      Peter Moss (Peace & Prosperity),
      and Peter Diamondstone (LU).

      2012 Independent candidates for the US Senate include:
      Cris Ericson of Chester (U.S. Marijuana Party),
      Laurel LaFramboise of Chelsea (VoteKISS),
      and Peter Moss of Fairfax (Peace and Prosperity).

      2010 Candidate for Governor and United States Senator,
      Cris Ericson provides commentary on Marijuana issues.

      Independent Candidate for Vermont Governor and
      U.S. Congress Cris Ericson speaks on
      ‘In- Sourcing vs. Out-Sourcing Jobs’,
      and explains the Federal Government EB-5 program
      for foreign investors who can invest in Vermont.

      Independent Candidate for Vermont Governor
      and U.S. Congress Cris Ericson
      speaks on H.R. 5843 Marijuana bill in the U.S. Congress.

      2006 U.S. Senate race. Cris Ericson running against
      Bernie Sanders and other candidates.
      2006 U.S. Senate race. Cris Ericson running against
      Bernie Sanders and other candidates.

      Cris Ericson describes new federal guidelines for Bald Eagles.
      What it means to land they are inhabiting and what it means to the population
      of the eagles in Vermont and how the change of policy came about.

      Channel 17’s Gubernatorial Candidate Forum 10/11/2010
      Gubernatorial candiidates Brian Dubie (R)
      (Tom Lauzon representing), Cris Ericson (United States Marijuana),
      Dan Feliciano (I), Ben Mitchell (LU) (did not attend),
      Em Peyton (I) (did not attend), Peter Shumlin (D/Working Families)
      (Jake Perkinson representing), and Dennis Steele (I) (did not attend).

      Statewide Candidate Cris Ericson provides commentary
      on how laws and regulations in Vermont
      effect the recreational usage of bodies of water.

      Cris Ericson (I), Peter Diamondstone (LU), Jim Douglas (R),
      Tony O’Conner (Cheap Renewable Energy),
      Anthony Pollina (I), Gaye Symington (D) Sam Young (I)

      Mike Bethel (I), Cris Ericson (I), Thomas James Hermann (P),
      Jane Newton (LU), Jerry Trudell (Energy Independence), Peter Welch (D/R)


  • u.s. constipation

    This is another of the things I can’t believe is still even an issue in 2013.

    • I agree,annikee. Much like

      I agree,annikee. Much like the issue of gay marriage -the decriminalization of marijuana should not be clogging up our political landscape.There are so many other truly important issues and problems that need to be addressed in a sane and rational way (gun control comes to mind) This was a smart decision for Vermont to make.Now the law makers can spend some time on problems that actually affect people’s lives in a negative and destructive way.

      • The decriminalization of gay marriage

        Kris, perhaps you could reconsider your thinking on marijuana decrim?

        How would you feel if a same sex couple had their private behavior decriminalized? So that, instead of jail time, you were given a “ticket” and had to pay a fine “up to $300” for being caught in your private moments.
        How would you feel about that?

        Would you see the decriminalization of gay marriage as a “smart decision for Vermont?”

        I’d imagine you’d prefer that same-sex intimacy to simply be legalized so that couples can decide how they wish to act in private.

        Wouldn’t you see decriminalization of same-sex behavior as just another way to criminalize that same-sex behavior?

        I ask again, “How would you feel about that?”

        Most marijuana consumers possess and use marijuana in private. It is a behavior that they as adults have the right to exercise without stigma and well within their human rights, and, without the law bearing down on them.

        • Personal vs Constitutional

          While I understand the points you make I’m not sure that -other than being an issue that should not be tying up our legal and political landscape- gay marriage and using marijuana have that much in common. Marriage – to my mind and that of hundreds of thousands of other people – is a civil and constitutional right. And any adults choosing to marry should be allowed -by law- to do that -regardless of their sexual orientation. It is a civil right issue along with being an issue of humanity, morality and legality. Using marijuana is a choice that many people make and since it is a personal decision and one that does not cause harm to any one it shouldn’t be considered a crime. And,while I may (and do) feel that it is my PERSONAL right to smoke whatever i want ,I don’t feel that the use of marijuana is my constitutional right. Just as I think it’s my personal right and choice to have a glass of wine I don’t feel that my personal liberties are being trampled on if I’m visiting a town where the sale of liquor is prohibited. But since the sale and use of marijuana has been -and continues to be in most states- a ‘criminal’ act- doesn’t the act of ‘decriminalizing’ the use of it make sense if only to make sure that not another person is jailed or left with a criminal record for having a couple of ounces of marijuana. Once something has been ‘criminalized’ (even though it never should have been) the next step is to undo that action-in essence no longer have it be a crime – decriminalization. Would you prefer that it remain illegal and that people continue to be arrested; that tax dollars desperately needed for other purposes continue to be used on legal precedings for those charged; that our lawmakers continue wasting time arguing over an issue like this rather than doing something productive? The fact is that -whether you or I or anyone else feels it was just- the purchase and use of marijuana was illegal. I’m glad that will no longer be the case. I’m not very concerned about the semantics of the phrases”criminalized and decriminalized. I’m not sure what action you think would be preferable- taking into account that this was considered a criminal act.You can’t unring that bell. This is a step forward to my mind. It shouldn’t have been a legal issue and now it isn’t. And, while I understand that both things involve personal freedoms -I don’t put being able to marry a woman that I love and having the same legal rights as my straight next door neighbor -in the same category as being able to smoke a joint while I watch Game of Thrones.I am just happy that in the state of Vermont I will now be able to do both of those things. Perhaps I am not understanding the law- but isn’t the use of marijuana in one’s home – as personal use the point of this new law? That those private actions will not be subject to any legal action? And, as I’m sure you know – it is still a “criminal act” punishable by imprisonment or fines for same sex couples to engage in ‘private behaviors’ in their own homes -in many, many states. So, would I prefer that those archaic and inhumane laws be taken off the books and those private actions no longer be anyone’s business? You bet I would.And if it meant using the term “decriminalize” to make that stop happening I’d be okay with that. As I am okay with the recent Vermont action.

          • Kris, the best way for me to answer this is....

            …with my May 9th letter in the Reformer:

            Too often in our bicameral legislature, the primary function of lawmaking is the exercise of power, not regulating what is right or wrong.

            Now that marijuana decriminalization is (finally) making its way to a conclusion this legislative session, you might think that the Legislature in Montpelier should be lauded for doing the right thing. However, marijuana as an adult consumer product is too far removed from any rational consideration by a state that could barely handle the decriminalization model, and only after an arduous trek by Marijuana Resolve to help bring and keep it before the public eye. The founders of Marijuana Resolve have long supported marijuana as a legal point-of-sale for adults since the beginning of 2010. We only settled for a decriminalization awareness campaign because we knew back then that our legislature simply didn’t have the vision that states like Colorado and Washington demonstrated in their recent legalization of marijuana.

            The alcohol model, which is the best way to sell packaged marijuana to adult consumers, is also the better way to help prevent underage usage. I challenge anyone to witness a licensed liquor retailer sell to kids. Why would they risk losing a very lucrative adult market just to sell alcohol to a few kids?

            The bonafide liquor retailer undertakes in good faith and by law to uphold its state authorized license, which carries a heavy fine, loss of license and incarceration for willfully selling to minors. Well, the same would be true for retailers who sell marijuana to an adult market.

            Licensing the manufacturing, packaging and distribution processes of marijuana for adult point-of-sale is not a perfect solution to protect our kids, but state laws cannot be any more imperfect than what they are now in its crazed pursuit by one group of adults trying to control the private and social behavior of other adults.

            And, if the Vermont legislature thinks it can pat itself on the back for belated marijuana decriminalization, think again. Decriminalization of marijuana is just another form of criminalization and it does very little to resolve the social conflict of this unrealistic, unnecessary and ineffective adult prohibition, that does more harm than good.

      • Gun Ownership Should be Decriminalized.

        “Most marijuana consumers possess and use marijuana in private. It is a behavior that they as adults have the right to exercise without stigma and well within their human rights, and, without the law bearing down on them.”

        Most Gun Owners possess and use guns in private. It is a behavior that they as adults have the right to exercise without stigma and well within their human rights, and, without the law bearing down on them.

        • I don't think most gun

          I don’t think most gun owners-and I’m referring to responsible gun owners- use their guns in private. They hunt with them -I’m assuming they don’t do that in their living rooms and they carry them to protect themselves -often outside of their homes. And if, indeed ,most gun owners only used their guns in private we wouldn’t have thousands of children being murdered by guns every year in this country. Nothing private about that.
          The problem is that gun ownership is decriminalized -with few laws and restrictions so that anyone – even criminals – can easily get their hands on one.

          • When talking about human rights

            I guess, when talking about human rights, we’ll all often insert our pet concerns into the dialogue, even if those concerns are not really tangible to the original topic, such as inserting gay marriage, gun ownership, etc. into a marijuana related dialogue.

            As for gun ownership, it has never been decriminalized because it is a 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, therefore it is and has been legal to own guns. Various laws may have ameliorated the constitutional right, but generally, gun ownership has always been legal.

            Homosexulaity, on the other hand, has been brutuality criminalized up until the fairly recent gay lib period. Marijuana, on its other hand, was not criminalized until rather late in the game, circa the mid-1930’s.

            Round and round we go….

        • How can you decriminalize anything that’s not criminal

          Mike: How can you decriminalize anything that’s not criminal in the first place?
          “Most Gun Owners possess and use guns in private. It is a behavior that they as adults have the right to exercise without stigma and well within their human rights, and, without the law bearing down on them.”

          Absolutely true.
          Gun ownership in Vermont is NOT criminal, and ought to remain so. Certain abuses of gun ownership are now criminalized and ought to remain so.

          Capitalism is the astounding belief
          that the most wickedest of men
          will do the most wickedest of things
          for the greatest good
          of everyone.
          John Maynard Keynes

    • Long time coming

      lol !!

  • cancer

    Are they adding a tax to cover lung cancer?

    • Ah, the old and worn cancer scare

      You can get lung cancer just by sitting or walking on Main Street and breathing diesel fuel exhaust from the logging trucks….

      • Tell that to the cig makers

        Tell that to the cig makers that pay States for medical care due to huge settlements. Point of use carbon going in is carbon going in, doesn’t sound to natural to me? But of course when you’re high, who cares!

        • Archaic, draconian and insensible prohibitionist louts

          How dare you besmirch and stigmatize the pleasurable affects of marijuana merely as, “But of course when you’re high, who cares !”

          I didn’t use the cigarette analogy because it obviously was already understood that some ignorant people would attempt to make a connection between marijuana and cigarettes. I see you didn’t disappoint us SteveJD….

          Don’t suppose you have any other inaccurate observations you like to make about marijuana?

          Okay, so you have a bias against getting high. But of course, I don’t have to be high to say to you, “who cares?”

          When it comes to the dangers of smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol and breathing diesel fuel exhaust, why don’t you mind your business.

          I don’t tell people to not sit outside of The Works when a logging truck drive’s by.

          I don’t tell people not to drink alcohol because of liver damage.

          I don’t tell people not to smoke cigarettes because of lung cancer.

          But I sure as hell don’t lock-up any of them (or stigmatize them with “decriminalization”) because they made the personal choices to do so.

          How long will the good people who consume marijuana have to tolerate the archaic, draconian and insensible prohibitionist louts?

          • Taxman

            Great examples, but to the original point: Diesel fuel is taxed. Alcohol is taxed. Cigarettes are taxed.

            Should marijuana be taxed? Maybe so. Of course, it would have to be legalized, not merely decriminalized.

          • To The Point, however...

            So true Maus.
            Unfortunately however, of the many reasons for legal regulation of marijuana, taxation is not its strongest case. While there is money and taxes to be made, the illegality of marijuana reaps many rewards.

            The illegality of marijuana is:
            > a powerfully lucrative market as left in the illegal realm
            > a powerful inducement to raise the stakes of all police and military interests – in manpower, in armament purchases
            > a huge political boon for the careers of thousands of hard-on-crime politicians
            > a huge boon for the criminal-justice/corrections industrial complex
            > a huge readership, viewership, commercial and financial boon for the corporate media
            > medical marijuana, which is a form of illegality and actually stands in the way of legal marijuana, is a huge boon for doctor and pharmaceutical industries

            While taxation should be a no-brainer, dollar-for-dollar, it just can’t compete with the illegal marketplace.

  • Skate Rider

    At first I thought attaching to this Bill would be a good notion. Decriminalize skateboarding. Parallel interests. A step of easement.

    But after hearing discussion playing out, I’m on the side of all or …thanks, but..

    Why dive halfway in? End the criminalization entirely. Give skaters(tokers) the same access as bicyclists(drinkers), and enforce accordingly.

    The denigration, and perpetuation of negative stereotypes by decriminalization is not worth the legal hassle.

    Serve up the whole enchilada, or STFU.

    • Where have our freedom loving Americans gone?

      Good man Spinoza!

      This American is sick of legislators and their “constituents” criminalizing every damn thing they get their hands on.

      Nobody squeezed down the cyclists who are regulated, but still possess a freedom of mobility without corralling them onto lots. I remember when the streets and yes, even the sidewalks would find skaters moving about. It was a pleasure to see them and I never bought the notion they were a nuisance or danger to themselves or others.

      There was something about the air on their faces and wind behind their backs that seemed to be more alive than watching shopping consumers weighed down with shopping bags that were thrown away and ending up choking to death the fishes in the sea.

      Where have our freedom loving Americans gone?

    • Decriminalize skateboarding

      I agree this idea of yours should be taken seriously, why corral up the array of skateboarding styles to the sole confines and limited square footage of a congested skateboard park that takes up valuable, limited space already occupied and also happens to be at a confluence of one of the busiest intersections we have, not much freedom for expansion there out of bounds, just asking for another type of traffic jam pushing the safety envelope to the maximum if you ask me, spread it out!.

      • The Long Road Ahead

        It seems the focus of your support is hyper-local, but I was making a more global statement. Longboarding has seen great growth in both technology and popularity worldwide. It’s something that was not really on the map ten years ago, similar to how most people were largely clueless about global warming a decade ago.

        My response to this post was in affinity with the shortsightedness of “decriminalization”. People are able to evolve. Slavery, suffrage, segregation, civil rights…we have evidence of transcending limited and archaic practices and beliefs, but there’s still that impulse to crush aspects of a just or sane(or sustainable) society .

        While the world continues to heat up, and we are seeking ways to reduce carbon emissions, we still punish those like myself who would make personal efforts to mitigate the problem. The burden of knowing you are committing a crime for doing something benign, even beneficial, is hard to take.

        I wrote here because I felt resonance with the legalize pot argument. I also can’t state strongly enough my contempt for the hypocrisy, when one group is afforded privileges and another is literally criminalized–all for politicizing and propagating some archaic viewpoint.

  • Decriminalization in Portugal

    Drugs in Portugal – Did Decriminalization Work? By Maia Szalavitz Sunday, Apr. 26, 2009
    Apparently it does, quite well. Author Glenn Greenwald contends that a major problem with most American drug policy debate is that it’s based on “speculation and fear mongering,” rather than empirical evidence on the effects of more lenient drug policies. In Portugal, the effect was to neutralize what had become the country’s number one public health problem, he says.
    Go to this article at:,8599,1893946,00.html

    • More in US used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijana

      When I went to this link a big Advil ad blocked part of the text so I clicked print and was able to get the full readable text.

      The insidious nature of US Drug Policy:
      “The U.S. has long championed a hard-line drug policy, supporting only international agreements that enforce drug prohibition and imposing on (other nation’s citizens) some of the world’s harshest penalties for drug possession and sales.”

      FULL TEXT:
      Sunday, Apr. 26, 2009 Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work?
      By Maia Szalavitz (

      Pop quiz: Which European country has the most liberal drug laws? (Hint: It’s not the Netherlands.)

      Although its capital is notorious among stoners and college kids for marijuana haze–filled “coffee shops,” Holland has never actually legalized cannabis — the Dutch simply don’t enforce their laws against the shops. The correct answer is Portugal, which in 2001 became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

      At the recommendation of a national commission charged with addressing Portugal’s drug problem, jail time was replaced with the offer of therapy. The argument was that the fear of prison drives addicts underground and that incarceration is more expensive than treatment — so why not give drug addicts health services instead? Under Portugal’s new regime, people found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser for appropriate treatment (which may be refused without criminal punishment), instead of jail. (See the world’s most influential people in the 2009 TIME 100.)

      The question is, does the new policy work? At the time, critics in the poor, socially conservative and largely Catholic nation said decriminalizing drug possession would open the country to “drug tourists” and exacerbate Portugal’s drug problem; the country had some of the highest levels of hard-drug use in Europe. But the recently released results of a report commissioned by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, suggest otherwise.

      The paper, published by Cato in April, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.

      “Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

      Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

      The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half. In addition, the number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment as well.

      Portugal’s case study is of some interest to lawmakers in the U.S., confronted now with the violent overflow of escalating drug gang wars in Mexico. The U.S. has long championed a hard-line drug policy, supporting only international agreements that enforce drug prohibition and imposing on its citizens some of the world’s harshest penalties for drug possession and sales. Yet America has the highest rates of cocaine and marijuana use in the world, and while most of the E.U. (including Holland) has more liberal drug laws than the U.S., it also has less drug use.

      “I think we can learn that we should stop being reflexively opposed when someone else does [decriminalize] and should take seriously the possibility that anti-user enforcement isn’t having much influence on our drug consumption,” says Mark Kleiman, author of the forthcoming When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment and director of the drug policy analysis program at UCLA. Kleiman does not consider Portugal a realistic model for the U.S., however, because of differences in size and culture between the two countries.

      But there is a movement afoot in the U.S., in the legislatures of New York State, California and Massachusetts, to reconsider our overly punitive drug laws. Recently, Senators Jim Webb and Arlen Specter proposed that Congress create a national commission, not unlike Portugal’s, to deal with prison reform and overhaul drug-sentencing policy. As Webb noted, the U.S. is home to 5% of the global population but 25% of its prisoners.

      At the Cato Institute in early April, Greenwald contended that a major problem with most American drug policy debate is that it’s based on “speculation and fear mongering,” rather than empirical evidence on the effects of more lenient drug policies. In Portugal, the effect was to neutralize what had become the country’s number one public health problem, he says.

      “The impact in the life of families and our society is much lower than it was before decriminalization,” says Joao Castel-Branco Goulao, Portugual’s “drug czar” and president of the Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction, adding that police are now able to re-focus on tracking much higher level dealers and larger quantities of drugs.

      Peter Reuter, a professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Maryland, like Kleiman, is skeptical. He conceded in a presentation at the Cato Institute that “it’s fair to say that decriminalization in Portugal has met its central goal. Drug use did not rise.” However, he notes that Portugal is a small country and that the cyclical nature of drug epidemics — which tends to occur no matter what policies are in place — may account for the declines in heroin use and deaths.

      The Cato report’s author, Greenwald, hews to the first point: that the data shows that decriminalization does not result in increased drug use. Since that is what concerns the public and policymakers most about decriminalization, he says, “that is the central concession that will transform the debate.”

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