Ten years ago, in July 2001, Portugal decriminalized the use and possession of all illicit drugs including cocaine and heroin. Under the new legal framework, all drugs were “decriminalized,” not “legalized.” Drug possession for personal use and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited, but violations of those prohibitions are deemed to be exclusively administrative violations and are removed completely from the criminal realm.
In an online town hall session yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama suggested that, while he is not in favor of drug legalization, he does believe drugs ought to be treated as “more of a public health problem.” Obama went on to add: “On drugs, I think a lot of times we’ve been so focused on arrests, incarceration, interdiction, that we don’t spend as much time thinking about how do we shrink demand.” (See the video clip below for the president’s full remarks.)
In recent years there has been much talk of the so-called “Portuguese model,” based on an initiative that led to the use of illicit drugs being decriminalised in 2001. In fact, it is often said that Portugal was the first country in Europe to decriminalise drug use de jure, while Spain, for example, took that step de facto for the first time in 1974, except that it was not through a specific law but rather as a result of a Supreme Court ruling.
In 2001, a small European country, Portugal, took a brave step, changing its drug policies and refocussing its efforts away from arresting and criminalising drug users, towards smart public health interventions. How did the political establishment of a Catholic-Conservative country come to such an agreement about decriminalization? How does the system work? Is it effective?
Bolivia will again belong to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs after its bid to rejoin with a reservation that it does not accept the treaty’s requirement that “coca leaf chewing must be banned” was successful Friday. Opponents needed one-third of the 184 signatory countries to object, but fell far, far short despite objections by the US and the International Narcotics Control Board.
On 4 October, Portuguese and international news outlets reported a win for the right-wing coalition as a victory for austerity policies. But the latest news shows that a left-wing coalition government may yet emerge, reflecting growing popular anger and resistance to unemployment, poverty and corruption.