In my ethics class we pay special attention to Portugal’s drug decriminalization. In 2001 Portugal changed its approach to drugs and decided to treat it as a mental health issue and not a criminal issue. Drug overdose deaths in the US are 31X higher than Portugal in drug overdose deaths per million. Of course, the number of deaths by overdose is not the only way to measure how decriminalization affects a country, but the immediate sparing of life is the core concern.
Portugal, as Spain, is notoriously low on the index of religious adherence. On any given weekend, less than 1% of the people attend a religious service. In France it is less than 2%, and in England less than 6%. Compare this to America where over 40% say they went to church that weekend when polled. (Some say this self-reporting is actually lying!) This is down from the highest religious adherence in American history of 53% during the Eisenhower administration and at the beginning of Billy Graham’s phenomenal rise to prominence. This was the period when “In God We Trust” was put on American currency and “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Is America even psychologically capable of decriminalizing drug use, given its continued high religious adherence? I don’t think so. It would tear at the cultural and social fabric of our country in a way it would not in highly secular states, such as Spain and Portugal. It would be going against the moral consensus built up over 400 years here. To go against conscience in such a bald way builds tensions that might wear away whatever social cohesion we have left. We have experienced a similar tearing when it comes to abortion and same sex marriage. These came to us by court rather than by legislation and do not reflect the religious imagination of a large segment of our population, and depending on how the issues are framed, even the larger segment.
So, to decriminalize drugs might spare more lives and save money, but we might break in other places, too, in ways we had not imagined. Here is a link if you want to follow up on it.