“Once hailed for decriminalizing drugs,Portugal is now having doubts.” That’s the title of a July 7 article in the Washington Post by Anthony Faiola and Catarina Fernandes Martins.

Jeffrey Singer, M.D., who has become one of my go-to experts for examining the drug war, has written a response on the Cato Institute’s Cato at Liberty. It’s quite good.

I’ll hit some highlights of his response, mixed in with my own thoughts.

First, what I found striking is that there’s not a lot of before and after. Normally, you would start to judge a change by looking at how things were before the change. But a lot of the discussion in the article is about how things are now compared to how they were in the first few years after the change. So even if things have deteriorated, by whatever criteria you use, that doesn’t mean they’re worse than before decriminalization. And that comparison, after all, is the relevant one if you’re judging decriminalization.

Here’s the one clear before-and-after comparison I could find:

A newly released national survey suggests the percent of adults who have used illicit drugs increased to 12.8 percent in 2022, up from 7.8 in 2001, though still below European averages. Portugal’s prevalence of high-risk opioid use is higher than Germany’s, but lower than that of France and Italy. But even proponents of decriminalization here admit that something is going wrong.

Notice that the percent of adults increased by over 60 percent. That, though, doesn’t seem enough of an argument against decriminalization. After all, my prior view, based on the law of demand, is that when the price of something falls, people do more of it. With a lower legal risk of consuming, the price inclusive of risk falls.

Also Jeff Singer points out the following:

In my letter to the editor [of the Washington Post], I argue that the article’s tone suggests the expectation that decriminalization would lead to a drop in illicit drug use. While it did, that was always a secondary goal. The primary goal was to reduce drug overdose deaths by redirecting resources from incarceration to harm reduction. I pointed out that Portugal’s harm reduction efforts have greatly succeeded.

I also pointed out that while overdose deaths increased between 2019 and 2023, for most of those years anxiety, despair, and isolation resulting from pandemic‐related policies caused a worldwide increase in drug use— including alcohol consumption—and sparked overdose deaths. The authors of the Post article didn’t take this into account in their reporting.

It’s really striking that the authors and some of those they interviewed blame some of the problems that have cropped up recently on a change that happened 22 years ago and don’t seem to give any play to a change that happened 3 years ago (Covid and related lockdowns.)