In Michael Specter’s recent New Yorker piece (Full article only available to subscribers or on the iPad app, sadly. But a great read.), he traces the history of Portugal’s attempts to deal with rampant drug addiction. After a 1974 coup ended an authoritarian rule, Portugal opened up to the world. A side effect was a massive influx in drugs and a rise in drug trafficking. By the 1980s, drug addiction in Portugal exploded. By 1999, 1% of the population was addicted to heroin alone. HIV spread rapidly; eventually, Portugal had the highest rate of drug-related AIDS deaths in the EU. A treatment clinic head said “It was difficult to find a single family without a drug problem.” Specter writes:

“Every effort to increase drug penalties, to add police officers, or to build neighborhood consensus seemed to end in failure. Prohibition and its enforcement appeared to intensify the harm they were trying to address.”

In 2001, feeling they were out of options, Portugal’s lawmakers decriminalized drug use. Drugs were not legal, but the state now offered treatment in stead of jail time, clean needles instead of arrest. The results are varied and complex. People are still addicted. Some say there is now no incentive to get sober. But AIDS deaths and other health complications from addiction are down. Drug-related crimes have dropped, allowing the courts to focus on other crimes. The world continues to watch.

I’m not arguing anything here, much less naively calling that we “Legalize it.” But the article is a fascinating case study into questions of what theologians call the uses of the Law (First, Second, and Third). Read it and see what you think.

When asked if Portugal’s program is a failure since it allows addicts to live a “boring” addicted life without the external legal pressure from the no-tolerance “war on drugs” to seek recovery, a doctor who provides clean needles to addicts responded:

“I think what’s hard is to acknowledge reality… These [addicts] are living in the real world. If they are boring, or live with narrowed vision or limited ambition, I am happy… Because I know what the other side looks like. It is ugly. Perhaps it is a national failing, but I prefer the moderate hope and some likelihood of success to the dream of perfection and the promise of failure.”