Having decriminalised the use and possession of all illicit drugs, Portugal has reduced overall problematic drug use and the burden on the criminal justice system. Lessons from their experimentations can inform the global drug policy debate.
In 2001, Portugal implemented a drug policy comprising a strong health focus linked to the decriminalisation of personal drug use. Though production, trafficking and sales of drugs remain illegal, authorities have for ten years referred people they find in simple possession of illicit substances to a panel that consists of a psychologist, social worker and legal advisor. The panels are called Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction and those appearing before them can be routed into treatment or simply have their details kept on file with the possibility of a fine should they appear before the commission again within six months.
Whilst many at the time were critical of the law reform, fearing that it would result in a large spike in overall drug use and other related problems, recent evaluations of the Portuguese experience suggest a qualified success . Portugal remains the main case study for drug reform analysis; whilst other countries have decriminalised less harmful drugs, such as cannabis, Portugal is an individual case within the EU in explicitly decriminalising all drugs.
Ten years on from the reform, whilst most politicians agree that certain bureaucratic adjustments and refinements need to be made within the legislation, hardly any are pushing for a return to drug criminalisation .
But why did a socially conservative and predominantly catholic country implement such a liberal reform? In the years preceding decriminalisation, Portugal had a high level of problematic drug use and drug-related problems, and the highest rate of HIV/AIDS amongst injecting drug users in Europe . The political community of the time felt that drug abuse had become an uncontrollable ill within society and government policies were being prevented from fully tackling the issue by treatment barriers and resource drain imposed by the criminalising regime .
Such a reflection was furthered by an in depth study undertaken by the Comissão para a Estratégia Nacional de Combate à Droga (Commission for a National Anti-Drug Strategy). The Commission’s principle recommendation was that decriminalisation was the best way to tackle the country’s problematic drug use and addiction. Perceiving the criminalisation of drug use as a major part of the problem and not of the solution, the government implemented the decisions of an expert commission to decriminalise all drugs and simultaneously develop an overall national drug strategy in order to provide a more “comprehensive and evidence-informed approach to drug use” .
Drug offences were transformed from a criminal offence to a public order/administrative offence, for the use/possession of up to ten day’s supply of any drug. For example this amounted in practice to 0.1g ecstasy, 0.1g amphetamines, 2.5g cannabis, 0.1g heroin and 0.2g cocaine . Depending if users were deemed to be dependent they would be put into a treatment/education programme, or if they were classified as non-dependent they could be given a fine or asked to attend a psychological/educational programme. As one report stated, the primary aim was now to “dissuade drug use and to encourage dependent drug users into treatment” . Those found with more than these amounts were to be charged and referred to the courts.
Some expected drug use to rocket amongst Portugal’s population, particularly in the younger generation. However, only a small increase has been observed, primarily amongst adults. Since the adoption of the reform, the prevalence of problematic drug use, particularly intravenous drug use, in Portugal is estimated to have declined, though the fall has not been statistically significant. Problem drug users in neighbouring Italy, however, increased during the same period (2001-2007).
- In 2001, 7.8% of the population had used an illegal drug once in their lives, compared to 12% in 2007. The most popular drug was cannabis, accounting for 7.6% of the population and 11.7%, respectively .
- Amongst students, aged 16-18, the use of cannabis increased slightly from 9.4% in 1999, to 15.1% in 2003.
- More importantly however, over the same period, the use of heroin decreased from 2.5% to 1.8% .
- The prevalence of problematic drug use, particularly intravenous drug use, in Portugal is estimated to have declined, though the fall has not been statistically significant. Problem drug users in neighbouring Italy, however, increased during the same period (2001-2007).
- The proportion of drug-related offenders in the Portuguese prison population has dropped from 44% in 1999 to 21% in 2008.
Portugal, even after decriminalisation, still has one of the lowest rates of drug use in the EU .
Crime and Justice
The time and resources of the justice system are greatly stretched when tasked with combating drug consumption. In 2000, 7592 charges for drug consumption were made by police, putting a huge strain on the courts and prisons. One year after the policy changes, 6026 users, instead of going through the traditional route of prosecution and incarceration, were referred to dissuasion groups. This not only lessened the burden on the justice system, but also allowed the police to focus on the real criminals in the drug industry. Charges for trafficking increased by 11% when compared to the four years prior to decriminalisation , and the police were able to target traffickers instead of low level users.
By combining decriminalisation with alternative therapeutic/educational responses to drug dependency, the burden of drug law enforcement on the overall criminal justice system is greatly reduced .
HIV/AIDS, Treatment and Drug-related Death
Viewing drug addicts as criminals only exacerbates their problems. Fearing arrest or prosecution, many addicts don’t turn to treatment, resulting in needlessly high levels of addiction and disease.
Data concerning drug-related treatment and HIV/AIDs aren’t available for the whole of Portugal, so the following is from just one treatment centre. After decriminalisation, the number of users entering programmes increased dramatically.
- In 1999, 6040 patients were admitted to substitution treatment, compared to 14877 in 2003, an increase of 147% .
- Between 1999 and 2003, there was a 17% reduction of new, drug-related cases of HIV, with projections of an even greater decrease over the following years .
These measures had a definite impact on mortality rates. In 1999, 369 drug-related deaths were reported. This significantly decreased by 59% in 2003, as shown in Figure 1.
However, this program is currently threatened by budget cuts. Portugal is implementing severe austerity measures, following an international bailout and its worst recession since 1970. The health service lost 10% of its budget in 2012, and the funding for the HIV/AIDS risk reduction program has been cut from 9 million euros to just 1.5 million euros, with no guarantees that existing projects will continue.
It seems likely that this will result in a reversal of the progress made by Portugal in the decade since decriminalisation, with a potential increase in HIV/AIDS transmission and decrease in individuals entering treatment centres.
Whilst some feared that Portugal might become a drug paradise, this has simply not been the case. Approximately 95% of people sent to ‘dissuasion groups’ were of Portuguese origin , implying that tourists are not travelling to the country to abuse its liberal approach to narcotics.
When looking at the effects of decriminalisation in Portugal over the last 10 years the outcomes speak for themselves:
- Portugal still has one of the lowest rates of drug use in the EU.
- There has been a significant decrease in the spread of HIV and AIDS.
- The police force has been able to focus on catching drug traffickers, rather than consumers.
 Hughes, C. and Stevens, A., ‘The Effects of Decriminalization of Drug Use in Portugal’, Briefing Paper no. 14, the Beckley Foundation Drug Policy Programme, December 2007
 Greenwald, G., ‘Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies. Washington, DC: CATO Institute, 2009.
 EMCDDA, Drug Policy Profiles: Portugal
 EMCDDA, Country Overview: Portugal
 The Effect of Decriminalisation of Drug Use in Portugal, The Beckley Foundation
 The Effect of Decriminalisation of Drug Use in Portugal, The Beckley Foundation