In 2001, Portugal tried something radical. They decriminalized not just cannabis, as many other countries have done, but recreational drug use across the board. Having been in effect for 20 years, what are the results? Is it an approach we should emulated elsewhere? Or was it a huge mistake?
Portugal had a large drug use problem. Dr Goulao states that “we estimate that approximately 1 per cent (100,000.00) of our population used heroin at that point.” It was the drug capital of Europe. But it was not a liberal paradise of safe drug use, like some suggest could exist. It had a high number of drug related deaths. The country also had a high HIV infection rate. Joao Castel Branco Goulao, a Lisbon doctor in the 1980s and 1990s, was hired by the government to solve the problem.
The decision, as it turns out, was not some genius plan. He claims that the decision to make all drugs illegally a criminal offense was made out of desperation. “Every family had someone with problems and people tended to think, my son’s not a criminal, my son is a sick person in need of help.” This is a large moral reason for decriminalizing drug use. It’s a ideal that many progressives hold today. Whether you believe that you recreational drug can be safe, or should be an acceptable practice is not important here. They believe someone who has a drug problem, shouldn’t be punished, they should recieve help.
The number of heroin users in Portugal had fallen to 33,000 by 2015, since it decriminalized drugs 14 years prior. This was a large reduction of 67%. The country today has one of the lowest rates of drug related deaths in Western Europe. And not just because they are able to receive medical care. Some countries, such as Sweden believe providing a safety net will encourage drug use, but this certainly was not the case in Portugal. Young people in Portugal today are actually using heroin less than the average country in Europe.
Instead of facing criminal charges and a criminal record, the police direct drug addicts to the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction. There they can meet with social workers and psychologists. In many countries, drug addicts don’t seek help, often in fear of legal repercussions.
Dr. Nuno Capaz founded the commission in 2001, and has been its leader ever since. He believes it is important that people know the difference between legalizing and decriminalizing drugs.
Decriminalizing is not the same as regulating or legalizing. He says that it means they no longer consider it a criminal offense. It is however still an illegal activity and it they treat it as an administrative offence. Portugal still maintains a range of penalties for drug abuse, from a fine to community service.
Not all drug problems have been solved however. The underground drug trade is going strong and drug addiction and dependence of course still exist today.
Portuguese police continue to fight drug trafficking and smuggling. As the country comes out of lockdown, Commissioner Nelson Silva asserts that his team faces a difficult task in fighting drug trafficking.
Some people believe that recreational drug use shouldn’t be illegal at all, and that liscensed vendors should be able to sell products under government regulations. They often argue that access to legal regulated products is safer, as you are guranteed a quality product, will reduce drug related gang crime, and even reduce the rate of drug abuse and overdose. Furthermore there is evidence to suggest that certain illegal susbtances can even be used to treat various mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression and PTSD. We have already seen various countries use cannabis for this purpose.
Portugal however, has only decriminalized use. A society where you can buy LSD from a pharmacy is likely far off. Perhaps one day we will see Portugal or some country implement policies like this. Until then we can theorise whether it is a good idea or not.
We can certainly say that Portugal’s policies were a success. There has been small amount of replication of this approach in other European countries as well as parts of the United States. But no country has yet to truly follow in Portgual’s footsteps, despite the country’s impressive results.