Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work? Hell yes it did

By Desertfox · Jul 3, 2009 · ·
  1. Desertfox
    [h1]Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work?[/h1]
    By Maia Szalavitz Sunday, Apr. 26, 2009

    Photo Credit: Romano Cagnoni / Getty

    Pop quiz: Which European country has the most liberal drug laws? (Hint: It's not the Netherlands.)

    Although its capital is notorious among stoners and college kids for marijuana haze–filled "coffee shops," Holland has never actually legalized cannabis — the Dutch simply don't enforce their laws against the shops. The correct answer is Portugal, which in 2001 became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
    At the recommendation of a national commission charged with addressing Portugal's drug problem, jail time was replaced with the offer of therapy. The argument was that the fear of prison drives addicts underground and that incarceration is more expensive than treatment — so why not give drug addicts health services instead? Under Portugal's new regime, people found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser for appropriate treatment (which may be refused without criminal punishment), instead of jail.

    The question is, does the new policy work? At the time, critics in the poor, socially conservative and largely Catholic nation said decriminalizing drug possession would open the country to "drug tourists" and exacerbate Portugal's drug problem; the country had some of the highest levels of hard-drug use in Europe. But the recently released results of a report commissioned by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, suggest otherwise.

    The paper, published by Cato in April, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.

    "Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success," says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. "It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does."

    Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal's drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.
    The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half. In addition, the number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment as well.

    Portugal's case study is of some interest to lawmakers in the U.S., confronted now with the violent overflow of escalating drug gang wars in Mexico. The U.S. has long championed a hard-line drug policy, supporting only international agreements that enforce drug prohibition and imposing on its citizens some of the world's harshest penalties for drug possession and sales. Yet America has the highest rates of cocaine and marijuana use in the world, and while most of the E.U. (including Holland) has more liberal drug laws than the U.S., it also has less drug use.
    "I think we can learn that we should stop being reflexively opposed when someone else does [decriminalize] and should take seriously the possibility that anti-user enforcement isn't having much influence on our drug consumption," says Mark Kleiman, author of the forthcoming When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment and director of the drug policy analysis program at UCLA. Kleiman does not consider Portugal a realistic model for the U.S., however, because of differences in size and culture between the two countries.

    But there is a movement afoot in the U.S., in the legislatures of New York State, California and Massachusetts, to reconsider our overly punitive drug laws. Recently, Senators Jim Webb and Arlen Specter proposed that Congress create a national commission, not unlike Portugal's, to deal with prison reform and overhaul drug-sentencing policy. As Webb noted, the U.S. is home to 5% of the global population but 25% of its prisoners.
    At the Cato Institute in early April, Greenwald contended that a major problem with most American drug policy debate is that it's based on "speculation and fear mongering," rather than empirical evidence on the effects of more lenient drug policies. In Portugal, the effect was to neutralize what had become the country's number one public health problem, he says.

    "The impact in the life of families and our society is much lower than it was before decriminalization," says Joao Castel-Branco Goulao, Portugual's "drug czar" and president of the Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction, adding that police are now able to re-focus on tracking much higher level dealers and larger quantities of drugs.

    Peter Reuter, a professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Maryland, like Kleiman, is skeptical. He conceded in a presentation at the Cato Institute that "it's fair to say that decriminalization in Portugal has met its central goal. Drug use did not rise." However, he notes that Portugal is a small country and that the cyclical nature of drug epidemics — which tends to occur no matter what policies are in place — may account for the declines in heroin use and deaths.

    The Cato report's author, Greenwald, hews to the first point: that the data shows that decriminalization does not result in increased drug use. Since that is what concerns the public and policymakers most about decriminalization, he says, "that is the central concession that will transform the debate."


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  1. Greenport
    Good stuff this is :)

    I hope that other nations follow suit and achieve similar results so that we can knock the hardheaded ones off their high horses.
  2. Jatelka
  3. =SKA=
    I might just learn Portugese and move to Portugal one day :)
  4. Master_Khan
    This study should be sent to every US Legislator.
  5. ihatemice
    I've been hearing a lot about all this for a while now, has anyone here actually been to Portugal, or are we just reciting what we've read?
    I'm so keen to learn more about this place, culture and drug use. Would anyone here what sort of economical standing they are on too? Similar, more, less expencive to live in than say, the USA? And drug prices, obviously my major concern, are they cheap, or really only to be realisticly taken by the very rich, or people that steal a lot, and chemists?

    Cheers guys,
  6. cannabis-sam
    This argument will definately do the legalization movement much good as the two main arguments from prohibitionists are:

    Softer drug policies will increase use.

    Drugs are harmful.

    Once you put the argument forward that:

    All evidence shows drug use is lower in places with softer attitudes

    Drugs are harnful and that's exactly why they should be legalized

    The prohibitionists don't have a leg to stand on.
  7. ninjaned
    very true but most of them would probably just pass it off as pro-drug hippy crap. they can't imagine that anti user laws are less effective than treating drug users like human beings. course maybe some of them would listen, and realize that change is needed... i dunno, i just hope that we can get some reform for these draconian laws we have here.
  8. Ariev
    i live there so i can anwser your question
    comparing to the USA it is probably less expensive to live since the salaries are smaller, but not too much diferent, it is a european country after all
    Drugs, compared to other countries are cheap (expecially cocaine and hasheesh because of the proximity of african coast), and comparing to the US the prices are significantly smaller, like 50% less. However, some drugs are hard to come across like cannabis buds (you only get hasheesh) pcp, ghb, etc

    the police normally do not care about small amounts of drugs, since there is a limit of the quantity of drugs you can possess in the law: below it you cant be arrested or get criminally persecuted, and over it you will be charged as a dealer, and will face a panel of psychologists and medics where you have to choose either to face treatment or go to jail

    you can have with you 10 times a daily dose, a daily dose being:
  9. cra$h
    Want to know why decriminalization hasn't happend in america? cops would make no money. In the cites yes, but not in suburbia. There's no serious crimes in the burbs, and dickhead cops look for any way to make up for it. So if they find a roach, you're fucked. If they find even paraphinalia, your fucked. It's just how they make a little more money. If this was legalized, the only revenue they'd get is from traffic violations. How they gonna afford badge-polish with that kind of money?
  10. ihatemice
    Thanks man, you've been very helpful. Any word on heroin, or morphine though, how easy is that to come by?

    Thanks again,

  11. cra$h
    can someone help me with the chart? I'm assuming most of this is in grams?
  12. podge
    Ya, the first explanation line under the chart seems to indicate that it its all in grams unless indicated differently ( ie LSD uses ugs).
  13. Ariev
    Heroin is very easy to come by, morphine i dont know. but there are a big number of heroin addicts

    The CIA world factbook says about portugal:
    "seizing record amounts of Latin American cocaine destined for Europe; a European gateway for Southwest Asian heroin; transshipment point for hashish from North Africa to Europe; consumer of Southwest Asian heroin"

    yes, its all grams except lsd, but that is the daily doses, you can have with you 10 times a daily dose and claim personal consumption, above that its traffic

    the drugs are in order:
    heroin - methadone - morphine - opium - cocaine chloridrate - methylbenzoylecgonine - cannabis leaves and flowers - canabis resin - cannabis oil - pcp -lsd - mdma - anphetamines - THC
  14. RedBaron
    This should be sent to every country's government in the middle of configuring drug laws.......... The positive has outweighed the negative enormously in Portugal's case, so hopefully something can be taken from this.
  15. nibble
    50mcg is a "daily dose" of LSD? 50mcg would be sub-threshold in most people, would it not?
  16. Makesmefeelbig
    Well, SWIM is not an authority on the topic but, frankly, no. 20 mics is generally considered to be a threshold dose of LSD (it's an extremely potent chemical). 50 mics wouldn't make SWIY "trip out" in the classic sense, but it would get one very, very high.
  17. nibble
    How does one not experience a psychedelic-hallucinogenic trip but yet get "very, very high" on LSD? LSD is almost always taken in single doses from 100mcg, anything up to 250mcg is a common dose.
  18. johnnym
    Are you really saying that you can carry with you 10 times the daily dose?
    So that would be 2 grams of cocaine? If this is true... I am moving to Portugal :D
  19. podge
    Ya for most it would be around threshold or a little bit above. But as stated, one can carry ten times the daily with them.... 500 micro grams, more than a decent dose by many peoples standards.
  20. nibble
    I had overlooked that at first, still though how did they arrive at these standard "daily doses"?
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