Portugal’s Decriminalisation of Drugs: What does it Look Like after 14 Years?

When Portugal announced the decriminalisation of drugs 14 years ago, many authorities believed it would end terribly for the country and its people. This is what really happened… Portugal’s Decriminalisation of Drugs In the 1990’s drug abuse and addiction reached unprecedented levels in Portugal. In response, the Portuguese government took what many experts viewed as a risky move doomed for disaster by revising their drug policy to declare the decriminalisation of drugs within the country.

Events Leading to Portugal’s Lenient Drug Laws

Portugal was isolated during almost half a century of authoritarian dictatorship until 1974, when the country re-established democracy and gave up its colonies. Following this shift, many Portuguese expatriates and soldiers returned to their home country and brought with them a variety of illegal drugs. Drug use became symbolic of the cultural liberation the country was experiencing, and over the next 25 years as drug use soared, addiction, overdoses, and drug related diseases also plagued the country. At first the Portuguese government responded in line with the war on drugs in similar ways as the U.S. by implementing harsh, punitive drug policies that denounced drug users as moral failures and criminals. However, trying to battle the drug epidemic with the force of the criminal justice system was not working and by 1999 Portugal’s intravenous drug users had the highest rate of HIV infection in the whole of the European Union. In the late 1990’s Portugal was desperate to combat the country’s drug problem after many years of failure. It was in this desperation that in 2001 the Portuguese government decided to completely change their strategy by enacting a law that decriminalised drugs, despite warnings from the proponents of the global war on drugs that drug decriminalisation would be a recipe for disaster.

What does ‘Drug Decriminalisation’ Actually Mean?

Contrary to popular belief, Portugal did not legalise drugs, rather the government stopped putting people in jail for possessing less than a 10 day supply of any illegal drug. Drug decriminalisation also should not be seen as the polar opposite of the war on drugs, as drug smugglers and dealers are still sought out and punished to the full extent of the law. It is the otherwise law abiding citizens who possess small amounts of drugs who are no longer labelled as criminals. Because drugs are not legal, those individuals who are caught possessing a small amount of illegal substances can still be arrested and sent to a three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction which usually includes a lawyer, a doctor, and a social worker. The commission can recommend treatment or give a small fine, but usually there is no penalty. The decriminalisation of drugs allowed Portugal to begin to view drug use as a health problem that needed to be treated rather than punished. Along with decriminalisation the country also invested in addiction treatment and harm reduction services such as needle exchange programs. It is now 14 years later and Portugal has not had to reverse its drug policy as it did not lead to drug use and addiction becoming even more rampant as many authorities believed. In fact by most measures, the situation has significantly improved.

After 14 Years of Drug Decriminalisation How does Portugal Look Now?

Decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal is now considered by most standards a success. In terms of drug addiction rates and overall health and wellbeing the country has seen improvements. One area that has shown a huge turnaround since Portugal’s drug decriminalisation is the overdose death rate. Prior to decriminalisation Portugal had one of the highest drug related death rates, yet now the country has the second lowest death rate from illegal drugs in all of Europe. In addition to a sharp decrease in drug-induced deaths, cases of HIV/AIDS amongst injecting drug users have also decreased significantly. One of the major concerns of those against decriminalising drugs is that decriminalisation will lead to more widespread drug use. However, since the policy was enacted in Portugal there was no major increase in overall drug use, and drug use has declined amongst 15-24 year olds — the group most likely to try illicit drugs. Drug use in Portugal also now remains at lower rates than the rest of Europe and the United States. Another benefit was that decriminalisation of course also led to a dramatic decrease in the percentage of people in prison for drug law violations since 1999. Instead of going to prison, people struggling with addiction were more likely to get treatment as there has been a 60% increase in the number of people receiving drug treatment. All of these gains have led to a significant decrease in the per capita cost of social drug use, as well as huge public health savings by decreasing the number of cases of HIV. Some experts are understandably weary to declare a causal link between Portugal’s gains and drug decriminalisation, as there are many factors involved in the society’s turnaround. However, Alex Stevens, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Kent said, “The main lesson to learn is decriminalising drugs does not necessarily lead to disaster, and it does free up resources for more effective responses to drug-related problems.”  

Treating Addiction as a Health Problem not a Criminal Problem

When governments treat addiction as a medical rather than criminal problem, drug addicts will be more likely to seek the professional help they need. Decriminalisation helps to end the stigma associated with addiction — stigma that keeps many people from speaking out and getting help for their addiction. Russell Brand, a long-time advocate for drug addicts, when asked about his stance on drug decriminalisation stated: “Decriminalisation of drugs seems to be useful and efficient in places where they have done trials (such as Portugal)… but more importantly we need to regard people suffering from addiction with compassion and that there’s a pragmatic rather than symbolic approach to treating it. And I think that the legislative status of addiction and the criminalisation of drug addicts is kind of symbolic and not really functional.” Without compassion and appropriate treatment those struggling with addiction too often get stuck in the criminal justice system, where they do not receive the support necessary to enter long-term addiction recovery. Decriminalisation could help end stigmatisation and free up resources that could then be put into developing more accessible and effective addiction treatment centres. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance or behavioural addiction issues, you can contact The Cabin Chiang Mai residential rehab for a consultation with a qualified addiction therapist.