The United States sees drug abuse as a public health problem as much as a crime issue and is seeking to learn from countries in Europe and elsewhere about how to treat addiction as a disease, Barack Obama's drugs policy chief Gil Kerlikowske said. He noted what he described as a "somewhat successful" fresh approach in Portugal, where since 2001 authorities have dispensed with arrests, trials and prison for people carrying a personal supply of any drug from marijuana to heroin and focused their efforts on prevention messages and treatment.
Portugal’s anti-drug policies have been gaining international visibility since this country's 2001 decision to eliminate all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs. Decriminalisation of drug consumption, still opposed by political sectors like the right, was made possible by “favourable public opinion…it arose from society,” where virtually every family had a member or friend with a drug abuse problem, says João Goulão president of this country’s Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction.
Portugal's famously liberal drug policy has been held up as a model for other countries - Norway is considering adopting parts of it and countries as far afield as Argentina have expressed interest. But experts warn that budget cuts and the threat of more cuts to come - combined with an increase in hard drug abuse - risk turning it into a shadow of its former self. "We have a certain responsibility to maintain the essential despite the recession," said Joao Goulao, the national drugs agency chief. "Other countries do look at us and seek our expertise."
There is no reliable evidence that tougher criminal sanctions deter drug use or offending. On the contrary, criminalisation worsens the health and wellbeing of drug users, increases risk behaviours, drives the spread of HIV, encourages other crime and discourages drug users from seeking treatment. A report by Australia21, Alternatives to Prohibition, subtitled Illicit drugs: how we can stop killing and criminalising young Australians, sets out the lessons learnt about the failed war on drugs from other countries, especially Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Portugal.
Latin American countries are turning to Europe for lessons on fighting drugs after souring on the prohibition-style approach of the violent and costly U.S.-led war on drugs. Until recently, most Latin American countries had zero-tolerance rules on drugs inspired by the United States. But now countries from Brazil to Guatemala are exploring relaxing penalties for personal use of narcotics, following examples such as Spain and Portugal that have channeled resources to prevention rather than clogging jails.
The Home Affairs Select Committee in the United Kingdom report on drug policy draws on lessons from Portugal’s decriminalisation of drug possession and puts forward a case for the UK reconsidering its own policies. Alex Stevens assesses the situation in Portugal, noting that while decriminalisation has coincided with a fall in the most problematic forms of drug use, it is not the only factor. (See also: Portugal: Ten Years After Decriminalization)