Drug War

To Beat the Opioid Crisis, Virginia's Ralph Northam Should Think Like Portugal

Narcotics-induced deaths have plummeted since the European country decriminalized all drugs.


Virginia's next governor will confront many pressing needs but few burning oil platforms—except one. The opioid crisis just keeps getting worse.

Drug overdoses, which now constitute the leading cause of death for anyone in America not yet old enough to join AARP, topped 64,000 in 2016. That represented a nearly one-fifth increase over 2015. The other day The Wall Street Journal reported that from January 2016 to January 2017, drug overdose deaths rose another 21 percent. Opioids are driving most of the fatalities.

The figures for Virginia are equally grim. According to the latest report from the state medical examiner's office, drug overdoses have been the leading cause of unnatural death in the commonwealth for the past four years. And they are getting worse: From 2015 to 2016, heroin overdoses rose 31 percent; overdose deaths from all drugs rose 39 percent; and deaths from fentanyl and fentanyl analogs spiked by 174 percent.

Measured by Seung-Hui Cho's massacre at Virginia Tech, which took 32 lives, the drug epidemic in Virginia is now inflicting the equivalent of roughly one Virginia Tech massacre per week.

President Trump has declared the opioid scourge a national emergency, but his solution is tissue-thin: a few minor tweaks to federal policy, such as relaxing Medicaid rules regarding treatment facilities, and a promise of "really great advertising"—perhaps a rehash of those old 1980s commercials with the eggs: "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?"

Which will accomplish nothing. As The New York Times reported recently, a meta-analysis of "rigorous studies collectively examining over 180,000 people reported that the average effect of mass media campaigns on drug use in randomized studies was essentially zero."

Republican Ed Gillespie, who lost last night to Democrat Ralph Northam, produced a substantive and thoughtful— albeit insufficient—plan to address the drug crisis. It began with the recognition that addiction "is a disease—not a moral failing" and that "We cannot arrest our way out of the current epidemic of addiction." Gillespie also insisted on getting immediate help for people in crisis and encouraging a focus on recovery in the criminal justice system. Northam, Virginia's next governor, has offered issue and policy statements on his campaign website here and here..*

Gillespie certainly was right that trying to stop the drug crisis by arresting people will not work. It would have been nice if conservatives had recognized that point earlier—say, during the heyday of the crack epidemic, which afflicted largely poor urban blacks rather than affluent suburban whites, and which was met with get-tough crime policies. But better late than never.

In any event, in recent decades the number of people serving time for drug offenses has increased more than tenfold—from 40,000 in 1980 to half a million today. America's war on drugs has cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion. If locking people up stopped drug use, the entire country should have been clean by now.

Realization about the drug war is dawning all over. Those who say we tried to beat addiction into submission but failed include the editors of National Review, Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, former U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and many others.

Which should not have been news. The war on illegal drugs can't cure addiction any more than Prohibition cured alcoholism.

And this gives Virginia's next governor an opportunity to break with the useless past. He should declare Virginia's part of the war on drugs over, and announce a different policy to replace it: Virginia is the new Portugal.

Virginia currently is considering—ever so gingerly—the possibility of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Sixteen years ago, Portugal decriminalized not only pot but all drugs, including the hardest. At the time, the move elicited warnings about a parade of horribles. But the results have been remarkable.

Portugal's approach is two-pronged. It still treats drug dealers harshly and sends pushers to prison. But those caught with small amounts for personal use are sanctioned through an administrative, not a criminal, process. They are first sent to a "dissuasion commission," through which casual users are steered away from progression to habitual use. Addicts are sent to treatment.

And it has worked. While Portugal still has a drug problem ("Business is still pretty good," one drug dealer told The New York Times in September), it does not have anything like a drug crisis. Drug-related HIV infections have dropped 90 percent, thanks to needle distribution programs. Drug use rose slightly after decriminalization, but it is now lower than it was before decriminalization.

Most important: Drug-induced deaths have plunged, and are now five times lower than the average for the European Union. The country's drug overdose death rate, per million residents, is three to six, depending on the year.

In the United States, it's 312.

Any questions?

This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times Dispatch.

*CORRECTION: While the story suggested Northam offered a single paragraph of boilerplate on addiction, his campaign website has more detailed position information on the website here and here.

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  1. “say, during the heyday of the crack epidemic, which afflicted largely poor urban blacks rather than affluent suburban whites, and which was met with get-tough crime policies”

    Comparison is correct, but both sides deserve blame. Unless, we’re just going to pretend like the crime bill never happened during the Clinton years

    1. Exactly. Everyone wants to blame the Republicans who rarely miss an opportunity to “get tough” on crime. The charge for stronger legislation was started by black leaders and black congressmen who were concerned about crack taking over their neighborhoods. That big white conservative Maxine Waters was one of the principal voices calling for tougher sentencing along with other famous conservative voices like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

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  3. Should Virginia’s next governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, give it a try?

    If only it were up to the governor.

  4. Yeah, a Democrat state trying something smart?

    Good luck with that.

    1. Okay, so we agree it’s smart.

      Can we find a Republican state that will give it a shot then? Seeing as they are so smart.

  5. Yeah right! Gotta keep the prison guards employed, the unions who supported Northam demand it!

    1. Herbert Hoover’s Republican alcohol-and-everything prohibition also increased prison populations (and riots) by close to 40%. Damndest coincidence, that… and the way the economy collapsed entirely. Amazing coincidence, but, correlation ain’t causality no matter how often it is repeated, right? Ask the Jeffery Beauregard Sessions and his confirmation supporter, Republican Randal Paul.

      1. Huh? I never said that republicans are any better- the corruption endemic to both parties does its best to control the population and curtail our freedoms.

        Your ranting is incomprehensible-take your meds!

  6. I always hate this topic, because I have to admit that Portugal did something right.

    1. Portugal has done a lot of things right-Linguica sausage, Lancers wine, and Portuguese women are hot!

      1. What’s not to like about a country named after a drink ?

  7. So now it is finally becoming clear why the asset-forfeiture looter state wants US troops in harms way in Afghanistan? Observe that God’s Own Prohibitionists are still eager to stomp out safer alternatives, like… everything! “We” are committing murder in Afghanistan, but Portugal has decriminalized a Haight-Ashbury in which nobody wants opiates. Investors are flocking to Portuguese banks, where money can draw interest without prohibitionist looters causing flash crashes. Learn, baby, learn!

  8. Here’s an idea — why don’t we all start thinking like rational, literate human beings and ask why our government has any right or obligation to try to control what adults do to, or with, their own bodies? Legalize the damn drugs. Regulate production, educate the public, especially young people, about the real-life dangers of drug use and how to mitigate the risks, and allow users of opiates, meth, and cocaine the same access to medical advice and medical care available to people who use alcohol and tobacco.

    Prohibition is a tool of oppression. Its spin-off “war” is nothing but a campaign of violence, intended originally to justify racist drug laws on the books, but which has become a self-perpetuating method of instilling fear and controlling certain segments of the population. With the so-called “opioid crisis,” that segment has expanded to include the sick, the handicapped and the elderly. At no time has this very real war, that was intended right from the start to hurt people, magically morph into a warm, fuzzy campaign to prevent addiction or save lives. And no amount of half-measures, baby steps, or wishful thinking will make it so.

  9. Trying to continue the war on drugs, is by definition, insanity. Why is it going to work any differently than it has since Nixon declared the war on hippies and blacks! (only drug users?!!). Addiction has remained around 1%, lower than it was at the end of the nineteenth century. It was reportedly 1.5% then. But, don’t compare that to alcohol! That is where the true epidemic is. Alcohol still kills many times the deaths that drugs do. but, no one has figured out that the way to change the opiod epidemic is not a continued failed drug war! It takes thinking outside of the box, as Portugal did!

  10. Did you guys forget about your own article published in May 2016?

    There is NO “opoid crisis!”

    ‘Opioid Epidemic’ Myths


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