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Policy Review: Portugal’s drug decriminalisation

Written by Comment

In a new segment for Comment, writers are invited to give an account of a single policy – contemporary or historical – and ask whether or not it’s been a success. This week, Tom Leach considers the drug strategy put in place by Portugal in 2001.

Whilst much of the western world was undergoing social revolution in the 1960s and 70s, Portugal was under the grip of an intensely authoritarian and hyper-conservative regime. When the Estado Novo fell after the Carnation Revolution of 1974, the country began its program of liberalisation and democratisation.

All this was well and good, and Portugal managed to have its Summer of Love. However, instead of fairly tame weed and psychedelics, people were getting high on a cheap supply of heroin from the Middle East.

Though remaining illegal, those found in possession of a small amount of any drug could not be arrested.

Portugal had never quite had the chance to learn how to deal with drugs, and it got to a point in the 1990s where 1 in 100 people were using heroin. On the 25 July 2001, in a move that went against nearly all global drug policy, the Portuguese government decriminalised all drugs. Though remaining illegal, those found in possession of a small amount of any drug could not be arrested. Instead of treating drug users as criminals, they were (rightfully) treated as patients. Instead of appearing in court, drug users would go before a “dissuasion panel” of lawyers, social workers, and medical professionals who would attempt to get the user off drugs.

The policy led to falls in heroin use and drug related deaths

The project was altogether a great success. No longer living in fear of prison time or criminal charges, the numbers of heroin users fell. Addicts suddenly felt able to go to rehab centres and find help; drug related deaths dropped dramatically.

It’s clear that people have a drive to alter their mind, regardless of legality. Such aggressive policing may not be a wise use of resources

The policy brings into question the efficacy of “drug war” style policy. It’s clear that people have a drive to alter their mind, regardless of legality. It then must be considered if the aggressive approach to policing is a good use of law enforcement resources when it fails to put a dent in usage. A lot of governments could make good use of decriminalisation, but it relies on seeing drug users as people rather than criminals. The policy stands to question whether the war on drugs has altered people’s conceptions of users so much that this is no longer possible.

Muslim Taseer’s Policy Review on mutual combat is available here.

Last modified: 8th May 2020

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