In 2001, the Portuguese government did something that the United States would find entirely alien. After many years of waging a fierce war on drugs, it decided to flip its strategy entirely: It decriminalized them all.
If someone is found in the possession of less than a 10-day supply of anything from marijuana to heroin, he or she is sent to a three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, typically made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker. The commission recommends treatment or a minor fine; otherwise, the person is sent off without any penalty. A vast majority of the time, there is no penalty.
Fourteen years after decriminalization, Portugal has not been run into the ground by a nation of drug addicts. In fact, by many measures, it’s doing far better than it was before.
The background: In 1974, the dictatorship that had isolated Portugal from the rest of the world for nearly half a century came to an end. The Carnation Revolution was a bloodless military-led coup that sparked a tumultuous transition from authoritarianism to democracy and a society-wide struggle to define a new Portuguese nation.
The newfound freedom led to a raucous attitude of experimentalism toward politics and economy and, as it turned out, hard drugs.
Portugal’s dictatorship had insulated it from the drug culture that had swept much of the Western world earlier in the 20th century, but the coup changed everything. After the revolution, Portugal gave up its colonies, and colonists and soldiers returned to the country with a variety of drugs. Borders opened up and travel and exchange were made far easier. Located on the westernmost tip of the continent, the country was a natural gateway for trafficking across the continent. Drug use became part of the culture of liberation, and the use of hard narcotics became popular. Eventually, it got out of hand, and drug use became a crisis.
At first, the government responded to it as the United States is all too familiar with: a conservative cultural backlash that vilified drug use and a harsh, punitive set of policies led by the criminal justice system. Throughout the 1980s, Portugal tried this approach, but to no avail: By 1999, nearly 1% of the population was addicted to heroin, and drug-related AIDS deaths in the country were the highest in the European Union, according to the New Yorker.
But by 2001, the country decided to decriminalize possession and use of drugs, and the results have been remarkable.
What’s gotten better? In terms of usage rate and health, the data show that Portugal has by no means plunged into a drug crisis.
As this chart from Transform Drug Policy Foundation shows, the proportion of the population that reports having used drugs at some point saw an initial increase after decriminalization, but then a decline:
(Lifetime prevalence means the percentage of people who report having used a drug at some point in their life, past-year prevalence indicates having used within the last year, and past-month prevalence means those who’ve used within the last month. Generally speaking, the shorter the time frame, the more reliable the measure.)
Drug use has declined overall among the 15- to 24-year-old population, those most at risk of initiating drug use, according to Transform.
There has also been a decline in the percentage of the population who have ever used a drug and then continue to do so:
Drug-induced deaths have decreased steeply, as this Transform chart shows:
HIV infection rates among injecting drug users have been reduced at a steady pace, and has become a more manageable problem in the context of other countries with high rates, as can be seen in this chart from a 2014 report by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction Policy:
And a widely cited study published in 2010 in the British Journal of Criminology found that after decriminalization, Portugal saw a decrease in imprisonment on drug-related charges alongside a surge in visits to health clinics that deal with addiction and disease.
Not a cure but certainly not a disaster: Many advocates for decriminalizing or legalizing illicit drugs around the world have gloried in Portugal’s success. They point to its effectiveness as an unambiguous sign that decriminalization works.
But some social scientists have cautioned against attributing all the numbers to decriminalization itself, as there are other factors at play in the national decrease in overdoses, disease and usage.
At the turn of the millennium, Portugal shifted drug control from the Justice Department to the Ministry of Health and instituted a robust public health model for treating hard drug addiction. It also expanded the welfare system in the form of a guaranteed minimum income. Changes in the material and health resources for at-risk populations for the past decade are a major factor in evaluating the evolution of Portugal’s drug situation.
Alex Stevens, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Kent and co-author of the aforementioned criminology article, thinks the global community should be measured in its takeaways from Portugal.
“The main lesson to learn decriminalizing drugs doesn’t necessarily lead to disaster, and it does free up resources for more effective responses to drug-related problems,” Stevens told Mic.
The road ahead: As Portugal faces a precarious financial situation, there are risks that the country could divest from its health services that are so vital in keeping the addicted community as healthy as possible and more likely to re-enter sobriety.
That would be a shame for a country that has illustrated so effectively that treating drug addiction as a moral problem — rather than a health problem — is a dead end.
In a 2011 New Yorker article discussing how Portugal has fared since decriminalizing, the author spoke with a doctor who discussed the vans that patrol cities with chemical alternatives to the hard drugs that addicts are trying to wean themselves off of. The doctor reflected on the spectacle of people lining up at the van, still slaves of addiction, but defended the act: “Perhaps it is a national failing, but I prefer moderate hope and some likelihood of success to the dream of perfection and the promise of failure.”