Decriminalised Portugal: Patients, not criminals

We have written about the effects of decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal before.

Al Jazeera has a new look at what has happened there and it is contrary to what all the?doomsayers have told us.

In search of a solution to the growing drug crisis, a committee of judges, psychiatrists and scientists was formed. The committee had the radical idea to contemplate legalising all forms of drugs – from heroin to cannabis – which would open the possibility to start treating drug users as patients instead of criminals.

Goulao was one of the nine members of the committee.

“We started [from scratch] when developing our policy. But throughout the process, we always considered addiction as a health issue,” he explained to Al Jazeera. “To legalise drugs conflicted with the United Nations drug convention system, though, so we had to tone down our ideals.”

Portugal is one of the 106 states that signed into the UN drug convention in 1988, which aimed at promoting interaction between the countries to battle the international trade of drugs.

What came about was a plan to decriminalise all forms of drugs when the culprit is caught with a small amount, making possession only punishable under the administrative law – for example, by a fine instead of a prison sentence.

After the arrest, a clear distinction between the recreational and addictive use of drugs would be made. The recreational user receives the fine for using drugs in public, while the addict is encouraged to subscribe to a treatment programme, which is paid for by the government. ?

Drug dealers, however, are still considered criminals, as drugs are still illegal in the country. This way, the juridical system can focus on battling distribution of drugs, while addiction is handled through the health system.

Before, possession of drugs was considered a criminal offence,?which was punishable by a prison sentence of three months up to a year.

An important aspect of the plan was to divert the money used for the juridical system – arresting and imprisoning addicts – into treatment. When the policy was presented in 2000, parliament voted in favour.

Because drug addiction – especially heroin – was so commonplace in Portugal by the end of the 20th century, everyone in society knew of an addicted family member. Thus, the issue was not something abstract: it became a personal matter. As a result, law 30/2000 was implemented in July 2001.

Annual spendings on the Portuguese anti-drug programme, according to a report by SICAD, provided by Goulao to Al Jazeera, increased from $49m in 2001 to $77m in 2002, after which the figure increased steadily until the economic crash of 2008.

Spendings in the crime department didn’t change, but were divided in a different way, because money was no longer spent on prosecuting minor possession charges.

When the new policy in Portugal was put into effect in 2001, the UN opposed the experiment. But, during a recent conference in Vienna, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which is the independent control organ for the implementation of United Nations drug conventions, called the Portuguese approach an example of best practices, because it puts health and welfare in the centre and is based on the respect of human rights.

The policy has been in effect now for 15 years. What are the results?

A decade-and-a-half after the implementation of the law, the number of overdoses have dropped significantly, according to research from the Transfer Drug Policy Foundation, a UK think-tank that advocates drug decriminalisation.

Evidence also shows success in preventing first-time drug use and delaying the age of drug use, according a report by the Open Society Foundation, an NGO which advocates a change of policies surrounding drug use.

Furthermore, drug use among 15 to 19-year-olds, a group most often the target of anti-drug campaigns, has “markedly decreased”, according to the report. The number of people indicating to have been using drugs in the past month has declined compared with 2001 figures, with an average opioid addiction of 0.5 percent (PDF) .

Drug abuse hasn’t been eliminated in the country, but decriminalisation has not led to an increase of addiction, the experts insist.

Above that, the recognition by the UN is an important confirmation for Goulao and others who have worked to realise the decriminalisation work. However, Goulao stresses Portugal’s approach to drugs was only a reaction to a problem that was very specific for the country.

“We would not want to say this is some magical model to completely eradicate drug use worldwide,” Goulao explains. “It’s simply what worked for us, at that time, with heroin.”

That is a spectacular success. Now, would someone please explain to me why we can’t replicate that here? All it takes is a little bit of courage, which unfortunately seems in short supply amongst our politicians.


– Al Jazeera