Has Decriminalization Cured Portugal’s Drug Problems?

By Paul Gaita 04/26/16

Decriminalization may not be a cure-all for the world's drug problems, but statistics show impressive reductions in drug use, drug-induced deaths, drug-related diseases, and criminal court cases.

Has Decriminalization Cured Portugal’s Drug Problems?
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For much of the 1980s and 1990s, Portugal’s population was in the grip of a heroin epidemic. A 1974 political coup removed the Estado Novo, the longest running dictatorship in Europe, from power, and with the transition came expanded exchanges between Portugal and neighboring countries. Europe’s narcotics industry soon established a foothold in the capital city of Lisbon and elsewhere. The newly established government attempted to quell the tide of drugs with heavy penalties and imprisonment, but as in the United States, the ultra-conservative gesture failed, and by 1999 nearly 1% of Portugal was addicted to heroin, and rates of drug-related deaths from AIDS were the highest in the European Union.

In 2001, Portugal tried a radical approach to its drug problem: it decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. As with similar programs in EU countries like Luxembourg and Malta, the law applies only to the possession of a specific amount of drugs for “one’s own consumption.” Individuals who are found with less than a 10-day supply of any drug are taken to a police station, where the drugs are confiscated and weighed. If the amount exceeds the limit determined by the government, they are arrested on suspicion of trafficking and processed through the criminal courts. If the amount doesn’t exceed the specified guidelines, however, the individual is sent to a three-person commission, usually comprised of a lawyer, a social worker and a medical professional and supervised by the Ministry of Health. The commission will then determine if the individual needs treatment or if the circumstances warrant a minor fine. In either case, the person is dispatched without any legal repercussions.

The result of Portugal’s drug policy is a wholesale reduction in drug use among all adults (ages 15-64) between the years 2001 and 2012, and a significant drop in drug-induced deaths during this same time period. New cases of drug-related HIV and AIDS cases have also declined, as has the cost of social programs including the criminal justice system; fewer criminal cases to try means fewer court fees to pay.

Experts are quick to point out that Portugal’s system is not the cure-all for rampant narcotics problems like in the United States. While social costs have gone down, health costs have increased in order to address rehabilitation, mental health treatment and other related medical expenses. Changes to the welfare system, including a guaranteed minimum income, have also impacted quality of life issues that contribute to drug addiction.

But as Alex Stevens, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Kent notes, “The main lesson to learn [is that] decriminalizing drugs doesn’t necessarily lead to disaster, and it does free up resources for more effective responses to drug-related problems.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.