During a walking tour of Porto, a spectacular city in the north of Portugal, the sunny, peaceful, spring-like day highlighted the orange clay roofs, the pastel-colored three-story apartments with the ubiquitous tiling, and the wide Douro River.
I was amazed to hear from our guide, Cyril, that before 2001, neither tourists nor residents would come to Porto, unless they needed to be there on business, as it is the center of the port wine industry.
As we stood at the top of a stone staircase that had been the Main Street of medieval Porto, which also happened to be behind the opulent and huge home of the local bishop, Cyril told us that it was a dangerous, deadly drug market. People would be held up at the point of a needle, and after being told that the needle was HIV infected, people would pay up.
At that time, more than 1 percent — 10 percent was cited in a Guardian article — were involved with heroin.
So what brought Porto into the world of prosperous, safe, and exciting destinations?
In 2001, as seen by many in the Michael Moore movie Where to Invade Next, Portugal made the radical decision to make all drugs legal in amounts appropriate for personal use.
The experiment has been successful beyond anything anyone expected. Drug use dropped 80 percent, HIV went from a scourge to an almost-nonexistent threat, the prison population dropped like a stone, and the previous street crime plummeted.
This policy has worked so well that even in the times of a more conservative government, there has not been a serious movement to recriminalize drugs.
Portugal, like every other industrialized country except the United States, has national health care. If someone is in legal trouble due to heroin or other toxic substances, they are given an immediate choice between rehabilitation and prison. And the national health network pays the bill.
One of the best arguments for legalizing marijuana in Vermont always struck me powerfully: when high school students, well below legal drinking age, were asked in yearly surveys which was easier to obtain, pot or alcohol, 80 percent said pot, pre-legalization.
After spending a couple of weeks in Portugal, I am definitely a believer.
The United States is spending a fortune in tax dollars, human potential, and destroyed families fighting a losing war on drugs. It is way past time to admit that it has failed.