One moderate alternative to the war on drugs is to follow Portugal’s lead and decriminalize all drug use while maintaining the illegality of drug trafficking. Decriminalizing drugs implies that persons cannot be criminally punished when they are found to be in possession of small quantities of drugs that could be used for their own consumption. Decriminalization would reduce the bloated U.S. prison population since drug users could no longer be sent to jail. Decriminalization would make it easier for drug addicts to openly seek help from clinics and self-help groups, and it would make companies more likely to develop products and methods that address addiction.

Some evidence is available on the effects of Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs, which began in 2001. A study published in 2010 in the British Journal of Criminology found that in Portugal since decriminalization, imprisonment on drug-related charges has gone down; drug use among young persons appears to have increased only modestly, if at all; visits to clinics that help with drug addictions and diseases from drug use have increased; and opiate-related deaths have fallen…

Though the decriminalization of drug use would have many benefits, it would not, by itself, reduce many of the costs of the war on drugs, since those involve actions against traffickers. These costs would not be greatly reduced unless selling drugs was also decriminalized. Full decriminalization on both sides of the drug market would lower drug prices, reduce the role of criminals in producing and selling drugs, improve many inner-city neighborhoods, encourage more minority students in the U.S. to finish high school, substantially lessen the drug problems of Mexico and other countries involved in supplying drugs, greatly reduce the number of state and federal prisoners and the harmful effects on drug offenders of spending years in prison, and save the financial resources of government.

The lower drug prices that would result from full decriminalization may well encourage greater consumption of drugs, but it would also lead to lower addiction rates and perhaps even to fewer drug addicts, since heavy drug users would find it easier to quit. Excise taxes on the sale of drugs, similar to those on cigarettes and alcohol, could be used to moderate some, if not most, of any increased drug use caused by the lower prices.