Drug Policy in Portugal The Benefits of Decriminalizing Drug Use
In 2000, the Portuguese government responded to widespread public concern over drugs by rejecting a "war on drugs" approach and instead decriminalized drug possession and use. It further rebuffed convention by placing the responsibility for decreasing drug demand as well as managing dependence under the Ministry of Health, rather than the Ministry of Justice. With this, the official response toward drug dependent persons shifted from viewing them as criminals, to treating them as patients.
Drug Policy in Portugal: The Benefits of Decriminalizing Drug Use is the second in a series of reports by the Open Society Foundations' Global Drug Policy Program that documents positive examples of drug policy reform around the world (the first being From the Mountaintops: What the World Can Learn from Drug Policy Change in Switzerland). Drug Policy in Portugal describes the process, context, ideas, and values that enabled Portugal to make the transition to a public health response to drug use and possession. Now, with a decade of experience, Portugal provides a valuable case study of how decriminalization coupled with evidence-based strategies can reduce drug consumption, dependence, recidivism, and HIV infection, and create safer communities for all.
After 10 years of decriminalization, the subject of drugs has ceased to be controversial in Portugal. While a few lone voices continue to criticize the policy for political ends, their arguments have little traction with the general public or the legislature. Even though the IDT may be facing a cut in its budget at the present time, this is the consequence of the general economic crisis only, and not a reflection on support for the policy.
The evidence of the last decade has quelled even the fiercest opposition. Fears have not materialized. Portugal has not become, even to the smallest extent, a destination for drug tourists and decriminalization has not caused a sharp rise in consumption. João Goulão, the chairman of the IDT and main proponent of the Portuguese drug policy, believes that one of the greatest achievements of the policy is in fact the decrease in consumption among the most at-risk age group of 15- to 19-year-olds. Although this is not direct proof of the effectiveness of Portuguese policy, it is certainly, as the policymakers argue with satisfaction, a promising coincidence.
The government can be commended for both its patience and its decisiveness: refuting emergency policy options when the drug problems first arose in favor of a substantive inquiry into what would make for an effective strategy; articulating the philosophy behind the strategy so that the country could understand the approach but pushing it through decisively nevertheless, despite opposition; creating the necessary infrastructure and making the required financial investment to enable the policy to be put into practice; and, finally, having the patience to allow the years to pass so that the impact of the policy could be properly monitored and an evidence base developed.
It is vital to properly understand the drug policy phenomenon in Portugal. Decriminalization is not treated as a magical solution. In order to reduce drug use, legal solutions must be supported by a comprehensive policy that helps drug consumers to reduce harm, undergo treatment, and return to life in health and in society.
Governments worldwide can learn a lot from Portugal’s experience. The Global Commission on Drug Policy’s report points to Portugal as proof that decriminalization does not result in significant increases in drug use or dependencies, and urges governments to “replace the criminalization and punishment of people who use drugs with the offer of health and treatment services to those who need them.” A special issue of the British medical journal The Lancet has also showcased Portugal as proof that humanitarianism and pragmatism can work in achieving a decline in HIV infections, drug consumption, and addictions.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Portuguese decriminalization policy is that it demonstrates that there are ways to overcome the lack of will among political elites and societies made afraid by the fear-mongering propaganda of the “war on drugs” and, in doing so, to constructively build rational and humanitarian drug policies.
Open Society Foundations