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Portugal’s Drug Reform Experiment

by Landmark Recovery

November 28, 2018
A picture of a bay in Portugal

The war on drugs is something that has run on around the world for the past few decades, each country is affected differently by the problem. One constant across most of the globe is that the problem is severe. However, in some countries that have tried unconventional approaches to drug reform, the issue is getting better. One such country is Portugal.

Portugal, located on the most western edge of Europe, surrounded by Spain, had a drug problem. While the problem still exists, it much more manageable than it was 17 years ago. Because 17 years ago, Portugal changed the way the punished people using drugs.

They chose not to punish them.

In 2001, Portugal passed a law that decriminalized possession of drugs, all drugs. Rather than making possession a criminal punishment with jail time, after the 2001 law passed possession of drugs just carried a fine. And those who were caught with possession were aggressively targeted for addiction treatment and volunteer work. Drugs remained illegal, and criminal charges could still be pressed if there were accusations of other drug crimes like cultivating or trafficking, but simple possession no longer qualified for jail time or a criminal record.

The move was, and still is, controversial. In a time when all other countries were focused on punishing people who used drugs, Portugal took the opposite approach and treated them as victims, casualties, of the war on drugs. While many countries and experts thought that the lax drug laws would lead to more drug use and more drugs in the country, Portugal remained firm their commitment to the radical law which, so far, has been effective.

Since the enactment of the law in 2001, the level of drug use are below the European average, drug use among people aged 15-24 has declined, HIV infections have decreased, rates of past-year and past-month drug use have decreased, rates of problematic drug use and injecting drug use has decreased, drug deaths have taken a dive, citizens seeking treatment has skyrocketed, and much more.

“Two things we can surely say are that decriminalization does not increase drug use, and that decriminalization does not mean legalizing the use of substances,” said João Goulão, Director-General of The General-Directorate for Intervention on Addictive Behaviours and Dependencies (SICAD) in Lisbon, Portugal, and the architect behind Portugal’s drug overhaul.

“It’s still illegal to use drugs in Portugal—it’s just not considered a crime. It’s possible to deal with drug users outside the criminal system,” he said.


Portugal’s Drug History

A picture of a bay in Portugal

Before the 2001 law, Portugal’s drug situation was bleak. According to The Guardian, in the 1980’s one in ten people dealt with heroin use and they came from all walks of life — bankers, college students, miners etc.

“It was carnage,” Américo Nave, a psychologist and President of Crescer, an outreach NGO focused on harm-reduction practices, told Time this year.

“People had sores filled with maggots. Some lost their arms or legs due to overusing.”

Prior to the 1980’s, Portugal was under authoritarian rule by Antonio Salazar for 40 years from 1933 until a military coup ended the regime in 1974. Under Salazar’s rule, the country was closed off to the rest of the world and institutions like education were weakened to keep the population suppressed. The abrupt change following the coup had a major impact on how drugs took hold of the country.

“Under the old regime, Coca-Cola was banned and owning a cigarette lighter required a licence. When marijuana and then heroin began flooding in, the country was utterly unprepared,” The Guardian article said.

A report published in the British Journal of Criminology also noted that the location of Portugal on the southwestern border of the continent makes it a gateway for drug trafficking.

“It is a transit nation for trafficking of cocaine from Brazil and Mexico, heroin from Spain, hashish from Morocco and liamba (the local word for herbal cannabis) from Southern Africa,” the study said. “Across drug types, it is estimated that 77 percent of drugs seized in Portugal are destined for the external market.”

Along with the heroin problem, the rate of HIV infection in the country became the highest in the European Union.

During the two decades that followed, Portugal instituted policies that were similar to many other countries, increasing harsh criminal charges on drug users.

According to Time, by the late 1990’s, about half of the people in the Portuguese prison system were there for drug-related reasons. This problem mirrors the current prison issue in the United States in which drug-related crimes account for over 50 percent of prisoners.

In 1998, Goulão was on a panel of experts who recommended a change in the way they approach the drug epidemic in their country.

“The government invited a group of people, a group of experts to build that strategy and the proposal was some new policies in terms of all mission areas— preventive work, treatment, harm reduction, re-integration but everything based in the idea that we were dealing mostly with a health issue rather than a criminal one. And accordingly we proposed the decriminalization of the use of every drug,” he told The McGill International Review Online.

While the government used their resources on treatment of drug users, it freed up police to focus solely on drug trafficking and manufacturing — attacking the source of the problem and helping those who had fallen victim to it.


Effects of Portugal’s Drug Law

A gavel used in a courtroom

As mentioned earlier, Portugal’s drug reform led to many positive effects not only for drug users but for the country as well.

For example, one study published in the British Journal of Criminology found that the following changes had occurred since the decriminalization in 2001:

  • Reduced drug use among problematic drug users and adolescents
  • Reduced burden of drug offenders on the criminal justice system
  • Increased drug treatment for substance abusers
  • Reduction in opiate-related deaths
  • Reduction in infectious diseases including HIV
  • Increased amount of drugs seized by authorities

While the study did also say that there were small increases reported in illicit drug use among adults, it mentioned that this was likely because the negative stigma that surrounds illegal drug use caused many to not report their drug habits. Following the decriminalization law, more people were likely to step up and admit drug problems as it wasn’t being as harshly persecuted as the country switched its focus to treatment.

“Decriminalization contributed to drug stigma and allowed people to discuss drug-related issues in every setting— in families, in schools, in workplaces,” said Goulão. “If you have problems and you are working in a company, if you admit you have problems, [that] you need to stop and go for treatment. You’d hold your place, you don’t lose your job. And this facilitates everything.”

When you look at some of the specific effects, the numbers are astounding. In 2001, almost 1500 intravenous drug users tested positive for HIV, in 2014 that number dropped to just 40. On a similar note, in 1999, the number of drug overdoses was at its peak in Portugal at 369 overdoses. In 2016, the number was just 27. These numbers represent a 97 percent decrease in HIV positive tests and a 92.6 percent decrease in overdoses.

If other countries around the world decided to follow in Portugal’s footsteps saw similar results, the drug epidemic could be a thing of the past very quickly.

While there have been many positive impacts from Portugal’s radical drug laws, the country still faces its own set of problems.

Many of the current problems the country faces deal with older individuals getting acclimated back into society. However, Goulão says that the biggest problems the country will face haven’t reached the country yet.

In an interview in September, Goulão said that the country needs to be prepared to handle psychoactive substances and synthetic opioids like fentanyl that have affected other parts of Europe. He also identified alcohol as a traditional drug in the country and alcohol abuse needs to be looked at and addressed.


What Other Countries Can Learn From Portugal

Multiple studies have shown that Portugal’s drug laws have had numerous benefits to the country and has contributed to an alleviation to a problem that affected thousands of Portuguese citizens. Drugs are a global problem and looking at how one country handled it, and the effects they have seen, could give countries a new approach to their own drug policies.

In the United States, the country faces a major drug problem that causes over 70,000 deaths per year, including over 30,000 due to opioids according to the Center for Disease Control.

As mentioned before, 15 years after passing their drug decriminalization law, Portugal saw a 92.6 percent drop in their number of overdoses. If the United States saw the same result, the number of overdoses in the country would fall from 70,000 to under 5200.

Similarly, the drug war in the United States has had a major effect on the prison systems, a problem that Portugal faced before their drug reform policies.

According to Time, by the late 1990’s, about half of the people in the Portuguese prison system were there for drug-related reasons. This problem mirrored the current prison issue in the United States in which drug-related crimes account for over 50 percent of prisoners.

However, the Drug Policy Alliance found that since from 1999 to 2013, the percentage of people incarcerated for drug law violations fell from 44 percent to 24 percent. Focusing on treatment rather than punishment had incredible effects for the justice system in Portugal and, if given the chance, it could have a major impact on a highly publicized issue in the United States.

Drug use not only has societal costs but can also have a major impact on the economy.

In 2007, it was estimated that the societal cost of drug abuse was $193 billion, $113 billion of which came from drug-related crime and criminal justice costs. Meanwhile, the National Drug Intelligence Center estimates that treating drug abuse costed less than $15 billion, 13.2 percent of the costs of drug-related crime.

While these are just estimates, Portugal actually proved that focusing on treatment can be beneficial to a country’s economy.

A 2015 study found that five years after the drug decriminalization law was passed in Portugal, the social cost of drugs in the country was reduced by 12 percent and 18 percent in 10 years. The reduction is driven by the lower indirect health care costs that come from illicit drug use and and the increase in worker productivity.

“I don’t know if it’s even convenient that other countries just copy-paste. I think [countries that] have different cultures, different histories and they must adapt to different experiences to their own reality,” said Goulão. “We are happy to share our experience and to share our results to the different countries to adopt. But there’s a clear and important trend that we believe that we very much influenced. This is the trend of changing the focus of the drug policy from prosecution, from justice, home affairs, into the health system. And this is a big victory I believe.”


In Conclusion

Drug and alcohol addictions are some of the most destructive forces in the world today. As you can see from Portugal, treatment can be beneficial not only for the individual affected but society as a whole. Landmark Recovery is dedicated to providing individualized treatment and resources that will help those seeking sobriety. Landmark’s goal is to help one million families over the next hundred years.. At Landmark Recovery, we believe in creating a supportive network of love and access to resources that can help you break free from the chains of addiction. Visit Landmark’s website to learn more about our drug rehab and alcohol rehab centers.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.