Decriminalisation – Why all the fuss about Portugal?

As countries the world over struggle with drug policy and legislation, those looking at the option of decriminalisation often cite Portugal as an example.

Portugal’s history of drugs is chequered. The country went from a dictatorship which created isolation as well as insulation against the drug culture of the twentieth century to significant freedoms following the 1974 Carnation Revolution. At this time Portugal gave up its colonies and colonists and soldiers returned with a variety of drugs, travel was opened up and drug use became part of the new culture of liberation. The use of hard narcotics reached crisis point. The government first responded with harsh, punitive responses that vilified drug users. By 1999, nearly 1 percent of the population was addicted to heroin and drug related AIDS deaths were the highest in the European Union.

After years of waging war on drugs, Portugal changed its tack entirely and in 2001 decriminalised all drugs. The decriminalisation of drug use entailed the removal of all criminal penalties from acts relating to drug demand: acts of acquisition, possession and consumption. If someone is found in the possession of less than a 10-day supply of anything from marijuana to heroin, he or she is sent to a three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, typically made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker. The commission recommends treatment or a minor fine. The clear majority of time there is no penalty. It is important to bear in mind that whilst sanctions imposed on individuals for personal use changed from criminal to administrative, illicit markets are still relied upon for purchase.

Across the globe, Portugal’s decriminalisation has been touted as a resounding success. It is overwhelmingly considered that the naysayers espousing doom and gloom prior to the decriminalisation have been proven wrong and the feared increase in drug usage didn’t happen. Drug use declined overall amongst all adults and deaths and HIV infection rates declined significantly.

An interesting and perhaps unintended consequence is that the change in law regarding use appears to also be associated with a marked reduction in drug trafficker sanctioning. While the number of arrests for trafficking changed little, the number of individuals convicted and imprisoned for trafficking since 2001 has fallen nearly 50 percent.

It is also important to note that Portugal’s stance wasn’t as unique as often suggested when considering the context of other European laws. Italy and Spain ceased imposing criminal sanctions for possession of small quantities of any psychoactive substances decades ago. Portugal’s stance is consistent with a growing trend to reduce penalties on drug users and focus on the supplier. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction notes that in the past decades across Europe there has been “an approach that distinguishes between the drug trafficker, who is viewed as a criminal and the drug user who is seen more as a sick person who is in need of treatment.”

It is further argued that Portugal’s decriminalisation wasn’t as significant as other European and international laws and it was merely the sanctioning of already existing practice. Prior to the changes fines were the major consequence for individuals arrested and convicted of drug use. Less than 1 percent of those imprisoned for a drug offense were there due to a drug possession charge.

These points do little to diminish the praise that Portugal is now a country with 3 overdose deaths per one million citizens compared to the European Union average of 17.3. Other comparable numbers include 10.2 per million in the Netherlands and 44.6 per million in the United Kingdom and 126.8 per million in Estonia.

The use of ‘legal highs’ such as synthetic marijuana and ‘bath salts’ is lower in Portugal than in any other country with such data. This assists public health in that many of the designer drugs that are manufactured to circumnavigate existing drug laws often have severe or deadly side effects.

Whilst decriminalisation can’t be seen as the sole causal factor for the lower death rates, it is considered a factor. The Transform Drug Policy Institute said with regard to Portugal’s drug laws: “The reality is that Portugal’s drug situation has improved significantly in several key areas. Most notably, HIV infections and deaths.”

It would be imprudent to look at decriminalisation alone as being the factor that changed Portugal’s drug culture and outcomes. At the turn of this century, Portugal shifted drug responsibility from the Justice Department to the Ministry of Health and instituted a robust public health model for treating drug addiction. It also expanded the welfare system in the form of a guaranteed minimum income. Changes in the material and health resources for at-risk populations are a major factor in evaluating the evolution of Portugal’s drug situation.

Despite debate there appears to be overall agreement that decriminalisation was not the disaster many forecast it to be and significant benefits have been noted. As the very least it allows for more resources to be targeted at effective responses to drug related issues. When looking at the wider picture in Portugal it offers many lessons in drug responses far beyond those of decriminalisation.

Further reading:

Uses and Abuses of Drug Decriminalization in Portugal on the implications of decriminalisation for crime rate statistics in Portugal.

Portugal decriminalised drugs 14 years ago – and now hardly anyone dies from overdosing on rates of overdose in Portugal post-decriminalisation.

14 Years After Decriminalizing All Drugs, Here’s What Portugal Looks Like on outcomes on the ground post-decriminalisation.