The Unexpected Effect of Decriminalizing Drugs in Portugal, Fifteen Years Later

The Unexpected Effect of Decriminalizing Drugs in Portugal, Fifteen Years Later

By Carolanne Wright

Contributing Writer for Wake Up World

Whenever the idea of decriminalizing illicit drugs in the U.S. is raised, there are always those who rant that such a measure would be the downfall of society, drug use would sky rocket and our moral fabric as a country would be irreparably torn. But these claims paint a very different picture from what actually happens in countries where the possession and use of small quantities of drugs — like weed, cocaine and heroin — isn’t a felony or even considered a criminal offense. Instead, drug use is considered a public health issue, not a criminal one.

Portugal is an excellent example of what transpires when drugs are decriminalized. In the face of dire predictions made by drug-policy makers, Portugal took the path less travelled — with surprising results.

Unexpected Outcomes

For years, Portugal had waged a fierce war against drugs. Then, in 2001, the country decided to radically change its position. But there are always been plenty of naysayers who feel decriminalization is a big mistake.

“If you make any attractive commodity available at lower cost, you will have more users. Anything like legalizing drugs is preposterous — no less ridiculous than trying to lock up every offender,” said former Office of National Drug Control Policy deputy director Thomas McLellan.

And Joseph Califano, founder of the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, warned that once drugs were decriminalized, we would see an “increase [in] illegal drug availability and use among our children.”

Widespread hard drug use, which stemmed from Portugal’s revolution in 1974, had reached a crisis point by 1999, where nearly 1% of the population was addicted to heroin, and drug-related AIDS deaths were the highest in the European Union. This despite severe punitive punishments and harsh conservative cultural viewpoints condemning drug use. Sentences were increased, more money was spent on investigations and prosecutions. To no avail. The war on drugs simply wasn’t working. Matters only became worse.

“Eventually, the Portuguese government moved responsibility for drug-control issues from the Justice Department to the Ministry of Health. It was a striking decision; in other countries, drug abuse has remained primarily a matter for law-enforcement agencies. In the past forty years, American police officers have arrested millions of nonviolent drug offenders, and hundreds of thousands have been prosecuted. Rather than try to eliminate drug abuse, Portugal’s approach, commonly known as “harm reduction,” attempts to minimize the negative consequences for society.” (source)

The government decided to risk everything and take a gamble to fully decriminalize personal drug use. “We were out of options,” João Goulão, president of the Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction, told The New Yorker. “We were spending millions and getting nowhere.”

Goulão ran a clinic in the Algarve during the height of the epidemic. “It was a disaster,” he said. “Such widespread heroin abuse fueled the AIDS epidemic. It was difficult to find a single family without a drug problem.” `

Writes Michael Specter in the article, Getting A Fix: Portugal Decriminalized Drugs a Decade Ago… What Have We Learned?

“For people caught with no more than a ten-day supply of marijuana, heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, or crystal methamphetamine—anything, really—there would be no arrests, no prosecutions, no prison sentences. Dealers are still sent to prison, or fined, or both, but, for the past decade, Portugal has treated drug abuse solely as a public-health issue.”

The Unexpected Effect of Decriminalizing Drugs in Portugal, Fifteen Years Later - Helping Hands

Users are brought before the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction. The panel has three members — such as a lawyer or judge, a physician, and a social worker or psychologist. They can either recommend treatment, assign a small fine or simply do nothing. Counseling tends to be the most typical approach. And it works.

Overall, drug use among young adults has fallen since 2001 and adult use is down as well. New HIV cases of drug users has significantly decreased too. But a reduction in drug overdose deaths in Portugal is where the results really shine — the country now has the second-lowest rate in the European Union.

For every 1,000,000 adults in Portugal, there are 3 drug overdose deaths. Compare this to 10.2 per million in the Netherlands, 44.6 per million in the U.K. and up to 126.8 per million in Estonia.

“While drug addiction, usage, and associated pathologies continue to skyrocket in many EU states, those problems — in virtually every relevant category — have been either contained or measurably improved within Portugal since 2001. In certain key demographic segments, drug usage has decreased in absolute terms in the decriminalization framework, even as usage across the EU continues to increase, including in those states that continue to take the hardest line in criminalizing drug possession and usage.” (source)

But some feel the improvement Portugal has experienced is complex and doesn’t simply reflect the decriminalization of drug use. Many question whether the benefits seen since 2001 are more an indicator of evolving patterns in European life, rather than a result of the program. Critics also assert that between 1998 and 2008, a jump of 63% in enrollment for treatment could have potentially happened without the expansion of clinics or decriminalization.

But Elisabete Moutinho, a clinical psychologist who is involved with one of the drug outreach programs, thinks differently:

“I know that is not easy for everyone to accept,” she said. “But they don’t get AIDS from a dirty needle, or hepatitis. They are not beaten by gangs or arrested or put in jail. There is no police corruption, because there is nothing to get rich from. It is a program that reduces harm, and I don’t see a better approach.”

Article sources:

Further reading from Carolanne Wright:

About the author:

Carolanne Wright

I’m Carolanne — a writer, chef, traveler and enthusiastic advocate for sustainability, organics and joyful living. It’s good to have you here. If you would like to learn more, connect with me at or visit


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