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How History Shapes Drug Policy

Throughout most of the world, drug users and dealers face steep penalties for the possession and sale of illegal substances, with some facing capital punishment as a consequence for their crimes. This is especially true in the United States, where the War on Drugs has led to the incarceration of millions of people and has inordinately impacted African Americans. Despite all races using drugs at similar rates in America, Black people are incarcerated at six times the rate of white people for drug related crimes. [1] However, in countries like Holland and Portugal, the criminalization of drugs and drug users is not expected. Likely due to distinct cultural and historical differences, Holland, Portugal, and the United States treat drugs and drug users in dramatically different ways.

In Holland, drug policy centers around public order and tolerance. Cannabis production and possession were first criminalized in 1953, although few Dutch residents used the drug at that time, and there was little subsequent enforcement of drug possession laws. At Kralinger Music festival in 1970, public officials realized that cannabis consumption had increased despite the criminalization, and the problem needed to be addressed in a manner besides further policing of cannabis users. In 1976, Holland revised the Opium Act to separate cannabis from other substances with an unacceptable risk to the health of the user. This allowed Dutch law enforcement to determine whether to prosecute an individual based on the impact on public health and public order, called the expediency principle. Holland’s police force can then target large scale drug traffickers more carefully, without wasting resources on low level drug dealers and users. This emphasis on public health is likely related to Dutch principles of tolerance, rooted in the necessity to cooperate with neighbors during frequent floods in the Middle Ages. Dutch law has become more punitive in recent years, which has resulted in a decrease in drug tourism, however, efforts are being taken to maintain the revenue from drug tourists who patronize the coffee shops which sell cannabis in a legally gray area. Due to a historical emphasis on tolerance, the Dutch approach to drug policy has emphasized benefit to community, unlike American policy.

Portugal has a less historic relationship to tolerance, but also takes an incredibly different approach to drug control than the United States due to major political changes in the 20th Century. Portugal did not experience the same countercultural movements and increasing drug use seen throughout the rest of Europe and America because Portugal was under the authoritarian dictatorship of Antonio Salazar until 1974. At that end of the 1970s however, it was clear that drug use was increasing throughout the country. After a brief trial that used stringent law enforcement on drug users, Portugal reformed their drug policies to decriminalize all drugs in 2001. This change is largely credited to Dr. João Goulão, an addiction treatment specialist who supported decriminalization efforts inside the Portuguese government.[2] Decriminalization in Portugal means no small amount of drug possession will result in prison time. Decriminalization differs from legalization because it does not allow for legal sale of a drug. This allows for a system where people who are found to be in possession of a drug are referred to a panel that evaluates the best treatment options, or no treatment, for each individual. Panel members dress in business casual clothing to keep drug users at ease. These policies have allowed for more drug users to receive treatment for their drug use, unlike the United States where the majority of drug users are sentenced to prison without access to comprehensive rehabilitation. Due in part to the partial isolation of Portugal while under Salazar’s dictatorship, the country has provided better support for drug users in contrast to most of the world’s punitive laws.

The United States, in contrast to Holland and Portugal, has obscenely punitive laws that apply to drug users and dealers. While some drug users may be referred to addiction specialists, individuals are overwhelmingly imprisoned for many years for simple possession of an illicit substance. The police often do not exercise discretion over which drug users to arrest, which can decrease police resources which may be better allocated for identifying high level drug suppliers. The United States in turn has one of the highest incarcerated populations in the world, and one of the highest rates of drug use. It is possible that America’s historical mistreatment of African Americans has enabled more punitive drug policies, as this demographic makes of the majority of citizens arrested for nonviolent crimes. In addition, America had long approached drug control with a prohibitive stance, which was cemented by the implementation of Prohibition. Although the movement proved to be virtually unenforceable and ineffective in eliminating alcohol consumption, this punitive approach was applied to different drugs throughout the 20th Century.[3] Through public campaigns led by the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics , Harry Anslinger, starting in the 1930s, the fear of drugs and drug users intensified, as both were portrayed to cause mass hysteria, violence, and the destruction of public order.[4] American drug policy has followed in a direction that Anslinger likely would have dreamed of, which has led to rather high rates of drug use in America, while Holland and Portugal enjoy stable rates. Holland and Portugal exercise tolerance and forgiveness towards drug users due to historical differences that impacted their approaches to drug policy, while the United States continues the historically precedented purging of drug users from the general population in the form of mass incarceration.

[1] “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet,”, accessed March 16, 2019,

[2] “How Portugal Successfully Tackled its Opioid Crisis,” Youtube Video, posted by “CBC News: The National,” April 19, 2017,

[3] Michael A. Lerner, Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 58.

[4] Harry Anslinger, “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth,” The American Magazine, Vol. 124, No. 1 (July 1937), accessed March 16, 2019,

The information on Dutch and Portuguese drug control was largely benefitted by Dr. Daniel Richter’s lecture on Legalization and Global Drug Regulation in the 21st Century, given online Fall 2019 in the course HIST 329B: Drugs in the Modern World: From the Opium Wars to the War on Drugs.

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