How Portugal Led the Way in Decriminalizing Drugs

Drugs come in many forms | © Claudioscott / Pixabay
Drugs come in many forms | © Claudioscott / Pixabay
Photo of Nina Santos
12 December 2017

Decades after battling with hard drug problems, which exploded after the country’s shift to democracy in 1974, Portugal made an unorthodox decision: it decriminalized the possession of all drugs for personal use. The movement became official in 2001, and despite initial criticisms received, the overall results have been positive. Today, Portugal is listed among the European countries with the lowest percentage of drug-related deaths and drug-related illnesses. Considering the overall success, why haven’t other countries followed their lead?

Many people don’t know it, but Portugal has been leading the way in drug decriminalization for 16 years. And while it takes a progressive and left-wing approach to drug use and treatment today, this wasn’t always the case.

For nearly 50 years, an authoritarian government and dictatorship, primarily governed by Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar from 1932 to 1968, controlled the country. During that time, the people suffered from national isolation and a lack of civil liberties. Drug abuse was practically nonexistent due to strict regulations and little-to-no outside influences.

After the bloodless Carnation Revolution in 1974, Portuguese citizens celebrated new freedoms, a democracy, and the end of their African colonization. Soldiers and civilians who had been residing in the colonies returned home, some bringing drug habits back with them.

Drug use is not seen as criminal activity. | © Pixabay

According to documentaries and news articles, the problem grew as citizens explored a comparatively unrestricted relationship with other nations, as well as struggled to find work. By the end of the 1990s, almost one percent of the country’s population used heroin regularly, and many more citizens were addicted to other drugs as well. Until the 2000s, the war against drugs was met with severe policies, which included prison time for anyone caught with drug possession, yet the problems continued.

Decriminalization has improved Portugal’s drug situation hand in hand with the country’s medical approach: today, the country sees and handles substance abuse as a medical issue rather than a criminal one.

So, what is Portugal’s approach to drug possession? The country enforces the following decriminalization rules for anyone in possession of ten days worth of drugs (or less) for personal use. This amount equals approximately one gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, or 25 grams of marijuana. Each offender receives a public statement requiring him/her to meet with a predetermined panel consisting of health, social and legal representatives. The proceedings are considered on a case-by-case basis, and while minor offenders may find their cases suspended, major drug users can find themselves following specialized treatment programs, including regular visits to health care providers and therapy classes.

The stigma has been replaced with medical and social help. | © Pixabay

On the other hand, the authorities continue to arrest and persecute drug dealers.

Before decriminalization, Portugal was among the European countries with the greatest drug use, drug-related deaths, and drug-related HIV rates. Since decriminalization, Portugal’s drug-related statistics have fallen. While drugs themselves are still illegal, the stigma associated with being a user has been removed, and people can safely seek treatment and recovery programs.

Having a drug problem no longer prevents citizens from improving their lives and moving forward. Rather than treating the topic as taboo, it is treated with an open outlook and positivity for recovery. Addicts are able to seek the help they need and reintegrate into society without a social scar following them.

Why isn’t every country following this lead? Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy question to answer, and it is one with many facets to consider. In short, what works for one may not work for all. Since decriminalization in Portugal, reports of drug use did increase initially, but so did the rates of users who became clean, showing that while decriminalization is not 100% perfect, the method has its merits. Would this approach work similarly in another country and culture? It’s hard to say, but even simple health care costs in countries like the USA are more expensive than in Portugal, influencing the matter further. Portugal’s health care is “state-funded,” meaning basic services are free or offered for a low fee, while American health care is provided by employers or purchased privately, and citizens pay more out of pocket.

There are other countries and cities, however, that have since followed Portugal’s lead. Mexico City also decriminalized minor drug use, encouraging treatment plans rather than making arrests, and focusing their efforts on arresting dealers instead. Canada has actually legalized marijuana, as have some U.S. states, showing a step in the same general direction.

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