Malaysian Airlines offers a friendly reminder and a cheery welcome to the
country in big block letters in its flight magazine:
BE FOREWARNED DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER MALAYSIAN LAW.
That message is repeated on the documents you sign when you cross the
border, and in case your reading skills are not so hot, the country used
to thoughtfully scatter billboards around picturing drug dealers hanging
by their necks from scaffolds.
On the other end of that swinging situation is the idea that legalizing
drugs is a better way to go to solve a problem thas bedeviled nations for
Considering that there have been a half-dozen or so overdose deaths in
Northern Michigan in the past few months, not to mention a claim by a
Gaylord detective that hundreds of people are now addicted to heroin in
the region, perhaps its time to consider how other societies have handled
The death option goes back in response to state-sponsored drug-dealing in
China 200 years ago, which was conducted by Britain as well as the United
From the 1750s on, merchants from Britain and the United States began
purchasing opium in India and selling it to drug dealers in China to
counteract a huge trade imbalance in popular Chinese goods such as silk,
spices and tea. Although shipping drugs to smugglers was against the law
in imperial China, the trade was so lucrative that when the Chinese tried
to stop it, the British went to war on two occasions to keep the drugs
flowing. They were granted the island port of Hong Kong as the result of
the First Opium War.
Its claimed that by the early 1900s, 27% of all men in China were using
opium -- 39,000 tons per year, according to Wikipedia.
But Chinas problem was just beginning. Its claimed there were as many as
70 million junkies addicted to morphine, heroin and opium in the country
by the 1940s.
That all changed after the communist revolution in 1949, when Chairman Mao
prescribed death sentences for drug dealers and mandatory treatment for 10
million addicts (which could mean exile for life to hard labor in a mine
or collective farm).
Nearby countries took up the hard line. Thailands police reportedly
execute methamphetamine addicts willy-nilly (unofficially, of course), and
in Malaysia, you can swing by the neck for possessing as little as 200
grams of marijuana.
None of this has stopped drug addiction in Asia, however. Vietnam has
rampant heroin addiction problems; China now has millions of new drug
addicts; and (according to the U.S. State Department) Thailand has one of
the highest incidences of amphetamine addiction on earth.
Compare this experience to that of Portugal.
Faced with 1% of its population addicted to heroin and a growing number of
AIDS deaths linked to injection drug abuse, Portugal decriminalized street
drugs such as heroin, LSD, cocaine, morphine and marijuana in 2001.
Today, according to an article in Scientific American, drug dealers are
still arrested and sent to jail in Portugal, but people using small
amounts of drugs -- 10 days worth or less -- go before a three-person
Dissuasion Commission consisting of at least one lawyer or judge and one
social worker or health care professional, who recommend treatment, a
small fine, or no action.
For its brave experiment, Portugal was roundly condemned by a number of
countries in the European Union, with some talk of kicking them out.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the party in Portugal: it turned
out that drug treatment went up by 63% in the country, and heroin
addiction went down by a whopping 50%.
A study by the libertarian Cato Institute found that over a five-year
period, drug deaths from overdoses dropped from 400 to 290 annually in the
country. Meanwhile, the number of new HIV cases caused by sharing dirty
needles fell from 1,400 in 2000 to 400 in 2006.
Portugal isnt a slam-dunk in favor of decriminalizing drugs, however.
Critics have their own set of contradictory statistics, claiming that in
those reporting drug use, personal drug use over the course of their
lifetime has gone up about 40 to 50% in the last decade, according to a
report on NPR.
What this is alleged to mean is that drug-oriented citizens in Portugal
whove been given the freedom to sample drugs such as Ecstasy, pot,
heroin, cocaine, etc., have tried them out -- but overall this hasnt
amounted to much of a problem and in fact, serious addictions are on the
Here in the United States, were not likely to see drug dealers with
purple faces hanging in the village square anytime soon, no matter how
many people overdose in the small towns of places like Northern Michigan.
But there has been some creeping momentum toward the idea that
decriminalization may be a better way to go. Libertarian-leaning
presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has discussed the
failure of the War on Drugs and the benefits of legalization.
Decriminalization could save America billions in law enforcement and
prison costs; end the need for robbery and theft as ways to buy drugs;
provide addicts with better treatment; dry up the revenue sources for
Mexican drug lords, Al Qaeda and the Taliban, among others who finance
terrorism with drug sales; and provide state revenues by licensing and
regulating drugs via prescriptions. Whats not to like?