Portugal was a closed, Catholic nation for much of the twentieth century, with a military dictator and no drug education. Young Portuguese men were forced to fight battles in the country’s African colonies in the early 1970s, where many were first exposed to drugs. Some people returned home addicted.
In 1974, there was a revolution — and an explosion of freedom.
“It reminded me of the Americans in Vietnam. Whiskey was less expensive than water, and cannabis was readily available. As a result, some veterans returned from the battle with [drug] addictions “Portugal’s drug czar, João Goulão, says “Everything changed all of a sudden [after the revolution]. Freedom! And with that independence comes the ability to use narcotics. We were, however, absolutely naive.”
By the 1990s, 1% of Portugal’s population had become addicted to heroin. It was one of the world’s worst drug epidemics, prompting Portugal’s government to take an unusual step: decriminalising all substances. Since 2001, all drug possession or use, including heroin, has been considered as a health concern rather than a felony.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalised the use of all narcotics. Weed, cocaine, heroin, you name it – Portugal opted to consider small-scale drug possession and usage as a public health concern rather than a criminal one. Of course, the narcotics were still prohibited. However, being discovered with them now resulted in a minor fine and possibly a referral to a treatment programme, rather than jail time and a criminal record.
Drug dealers are still sentenced to prison under Goulão’s 2001 decriminalisation statute. Anyone caught with less than a 10-day supply of any substance, including heroin, is required to seek medical help. There was no judge, no courtroom, and no jail.
Instead, they find themselves in a minimally furnished, unmarked office in downtown Lisbon, where they are counselled by government sociologists who determine whether or not to recommend them to drug treatment programmes.
For every 1,000,000 people in Portugal, three people die from drug overdoses. In other nations, comparable figures range from 10.2 per million in the Netherlands to 44.6 per million in the United Kingdom, all the way up to 126.8 per million in Estonia. The average in the EU is 17.3 per million.
Perhaps more importantly, the paper observes that use of “legal highs” – such as “synthetic” marijuana, “bath salts,” and other similar substances – is lower in Portugal than in any other country for which accurate data is available. This makes a lot of sense: why waste money on fake cannabis or risky designer medications when you can obtain the real thing? This is arguably a good thing for public health because many of the new medications created to get around existing drug restrictions have horrendous and often fatal side effects.
Drug abuse and overdose deaths are complex issues. They are caused by a variety of factors. The low fatality rate in Portugal cannot be attributed simply to decriminalisation. “It’s really difficult to find a causal link between decriminalisation by itself and the positive tendencies we’ve seen,” said Dr. Joao Goulao, the country’s decriminalisation policy architect.
Nonetheless, it’s apparent that decriminalisation hasn’t resulted in the dire effects feared by its opponents. In their review of Portugal’s drug legislation, the Transform Drug Policy Institute states, “In actuality, Portugal’s drug situation has greatly improved in numerous crucial areas. Most notably, HIV infections and drug-related deaths have dropped, while the anticipated dramatic increase in use has not materialised.”
“It’s cheaper to treat people than to incarcerate them,” says sociologist Nuno Capaz. “If I come across someone who wants my help, I’m in a much better position to provide it than a judge would ever be. Simple as that.”
In the future years, as state legislatures in the United States consider matters like marijuana legalisation and decriminalisation, Portugal’s 15-year experience may be instructive.