Most news from Portugal has been negative as their economy sinks faster than other nations. One bright spot is the widely recognized success of their progressive policy on “illegal” drug use and abuse. Portugal is one of the most beautiful and least developed countries in the European Union. One of their chief attractions could become drug tourism and marijuana production – which would significantly bolster their troubled economy (just ask the Netherlands and California.) Clearly, there are lessons for the failed US approach of criminalizing the use of recreational drugs.
By treating the use of hard drugs (heroin, cocaine) as public health problems, Portugal has reduced a number of major social costs (health, crime, and more.) Picture on right shows which drugs are socially acceptable (tight) and which are not. This article provides all the necessary background information needed to help reform the antiquated American drug policies and war practices. Click below to get the facts – share these with your friends and our “leaders.”
Ten years ago, Portugal became the first Western nation to pass full-scale, nationwide decriminalization. That law, passed Oct. 1, 2000, abolished criminal sanctions for all narcotics — not just marijuana but also “hard drugs” like heroin and cocaine. This applies only to drugs for personal use; drug trafficking remains a criminal offense. There is now a decade’s worth of empirical data on what actually happens — and does not happen — when criminal sanctions against drug possession are lifted.
Individuals caught with drugs in Portugal are no longer arrested or treated as criminals. Instead, they are sent to a tribunal of health professionals, where they are offered the opportunity, but are not compelled, to seek government-provided treatment. For those found to be addicts, tribunals have the power to impose noncriminal sanctions. But in practice, the overriding goal is to direct people to treatment.
By any metric, Portugal’s drug-decriminalization scheme has been a resounding success. Drug usage in many categories has decreased in absolute terms, including for key demographic groups, like 15-to-19-year-olds. Where usage rates have increased, the increases have been modest — far less than in most other European Union nations, which continue to use a criminalization approach.
Portugal, whose drug problems were among the worst in Europe, now has the lowest usage rate for marijuana and one of the lowest for cocaine. Drug-related pathologies, including HIV transmission, hepatitis transmission and drug-related deaths, have declined significantly.
Beyond the data, Portugal’s success with decriminalization is illustrated by the absence of political agitation for a return to criminalization. As one might expect for a socially conservative and predominantly Roman Catholic country, the decriminalization proposal sparked intense controversy a decade ago. …
Decriminalization became politically tenable when the Portuguese Parliament convened a commission of apolitical experts charged with determining how the country could best address its spiraling drug problems. The commission found that decriminalization was the best policy for reducing drug-related harms, and events have now demonstrated the wisdom of that recommendation.
It may sound counter-intuitive that decriminalization can improve drug problems. But Portuguese drug officials, with a decade of experience with decriminalization, understand the reasons for that causal relationship.
First, when a government threatens to turn drug users into criminals, a wall of fear divides officials and the citizenry and, thus, prevents effective treatment and education campaigns. Portugal’s top drug official has said the stigma created by criminalizing drug use and the resulting fear of government were the biggest barriers to effective education and treatment programs in the 1990s.
Second, treating drug addiction as a health issue, not a criminal offense, means the right solutions can be found. Counseling is far more effective than prison in turning addicts into nonusers.
Third, when a government no longer spends inordinate amounts of money on arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning drug users, that money can instead be used on highly effective treatment programs, as well as services, like methadone clinics, to limit drug-related harms.
Ten years ago, Portugal had some 100,000 heroin addicts — about 1 percent of its entire population. HIV infections from injecting drugs were among the highest in Europe. Now the addict count has been cut nearly in half. HIV infections from drug use have fallen more than 90 percent. And the policy shift responsible for such a dramatic improvement in Portuguese life is something U.S. lawmakers — watching an escalating drug war on their southern border — might consider worthy of some attention: decriminalization.
Ten years ago this summer, Portugal became the first country in Europe to decriminalize all illegal drugs — marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and even heroin. Hefty fines and prison sentences still await drug traffickers and dealers, but users caught with less than a 10-day supply of any drug are no longer considered criminals. Instead, they’re referred to a panel comprised of a drug-treatment specialist, a lawyer and a civil servant, who usually recommend treatment — and pay for it, too. If the users decline treatment and go back to abusing drugs, that’s their prerogative.
But statistics show they’re not doing that. Instead, about 45 percent of the 100,000 heroin addicts Portugal’s Health Ministry recorded in 2000 had by 2008 decided to at least try to quit the habit, without the threat of jail time. And the number of new HIV cases among users fell from 2,508 in the year 2000 to 220 cases in 2008, Alun Jones, a spokesman for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, told AOL News. “This was a major success,” he said.
Some Americans have noticed. “The data show that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success,” according to a 2009 report from Washington-based Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “None of the nightmare scenarios touted by pre-enactment decriminalization opponents — from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for ‘drug tourists’ — has occurred.”
The law’s passage 10 years ago and implementation on July 1, 2001, was a surprising twist for Portugal, a traditionally conservative Catholic country that by the 1980s had unwittingly found itself at the crossroads of major drug trafficking routes between North Africa, South America and Europe. Even the Netherlands’ drug laws are not as liberal as Portugal’s. There’s been a dramatic shift in the way Portugal and a growing number of other countries view drug abuse — as a public health issue rather than a law enforcement one. …
Within parts of Europe, Portugal’s liberal drug policy has become a model for other nations. Spain and Italy have both dramatically reduced penalties for drug possession, and the Norwegian government sent two delegates to Portugal in May to study the local strategy. Denmark is also weighing whether to decriminalize drugs. “For us, this is about the addicts leading a more dignified life,” Danish opposition lawmaker Mette Frederiksen said in March, according to The Wall Street Journal. “We want to lower the death rates, the secondary symptoms and the criminality, so we look keenly to Portugal.”
Americans might consider looking keenly across the Atlantic as well. The U.S. has long championed a fierce law enforcement policy toward drugs, but it still has some of the highest rates of drug use in the world, and more than a quarter of its prison inmates are behind bars for drug-related offenses. Per capita, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have smoked marijuana. But experts say decriminalization — let alone the legalization Mexico’s Vicente Fox suggested — is a long shot in the U.S.
“The war on drugs is a real industry, especially where prisons have been privatized. There are lobbyists in D.C. that want drugs criminalized so that tax dollars go to these industries,” said Dr. Evan Wood, an AIDS expert at the University of British Columbia who lauded Portugal’s drug law at last month’s 18th International AIDS Conference in Vienna. “It’s created a political quagmire in the U.S., where it’s difficult to even open a discussion about the failure of the war on drugs without being branded ‘soft on crime.’ “
“There’s a very strong consensus in the public health world that criminalizing people who use drugs is totally counterproductive,” Wood told AOL News. “And yet resources are still put toward chasing people and locking them up rather than things that work like addiction treatment. … It’s incredibly frustrating.”
Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2001. The outcome, after nearly a decade, according to a study published in the November issue of the British Journal of Criminology: less teen drug use, fewer HIV infections, fewer AIDS cases and more drugs seized by law enforcement. Adult drug use rates did slightly increase — but this increase was not greater than that seen in nearby countries that did not change their drug policies. The use of drugs by injection declined. …
“The most important direct effect was a reduction in the use of criminal justice resources targeted at vulnerable drug users,” says Alex Stevens, professor of criminal justice at the U.K.’s University of Kent, who co-authored the study. “Before, a large number of people were being arrested and punished for drug use alone. They saved themselves a lot of money and stopped inflicting so much harm on people through the criminal justice system. There were other trends since drugs were decriminalized in 2001, but they are less easy to attribute directly to decriminalization.”
Under Portugal’s decriminalization policy, users are not arrested but referred by the police to a “dissuasion” commission. The commission is made up of three people, typically an attorney, a social worker and a medical professional. It determines whether the person is addicted — if so, they can be referred to treatment or given specific penalties like being banned from a particular neighborhood or losing a driver’s license. Treatment is not forced, however, and those who are not addicted are often not sanctioned in any way. Only about 5% to 6% of users are brought before such commissions a second time in the same year. …
The changes in teen drug use were complex: throughout Europe, teen drug use rose sharply during the period in which Portugal decriminalized and then fell — the same trend was seen in Portugal but the fall was steeper. …
With 1.5 million Americans being arrested each year for simple drug possession — 40% of them for marijuana — Portugal’s experience raises the question of whether arresting users is a cost-effective use of taxpayer money. Billions of dollars are spent each year on enforcement of drug possession laws and that enforcement is notoriously racially biased — if ceasing to arrest users for possession has essentially no effect, is this really a good way to spend scarce money?
In the face of a growing number of deaths and cases of HIV linked to drug abuse, the Portuguese government in 2001 tried a new tack to get a handle on the problem—it decriminalized the use and possession of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, LSD and other illicit street drugs. The theory: focusing on treatment and prevention instead of jailing users would decrease the number of deaths and infections.
Five years later, the number of deaths from street drug overdoses dropped from around 400 to 290 annually, and the number of new HIV cases caused by using dirty needles to inject heroin, cocaine and other illegal substances plummeted from nearly 1,400 in 2000 to about 400 in 2006, according to a report released recently by the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C, libertarian think tank.
“Now instead of being put into prison, addicts are going to treatment centers and they’re learning how to control their drug usage or getting off drugs entirely,” report author Glenn Greenwald, a former New York State constitutional litigator, said during a press briefing at Cato last week.
Under the Portuguese plan, penalties for people caught dealing and trafficking drugs are unchanged; dealers are still jailed and subjected to fines depending on the crime. But people caught using or possessing small amounts—defined as the amount needed for 10 days of personal use—are brought before what’s known as a “Dissuasion Commission,” an administrative body created by the 2001 law. Each three-person commission includes at least one lawyer or judge and one health care or social services worker. The panel has the option of recommending treatment, a small fine, or no sanction. …
Walter Kemp, a spokesperson for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, says decriminalization in Portugal “appears to be working.” He adds that his office is putting more emphasis on improving health outcomes, such as reducing needle-borne infections, but that it does not explicitly support decriminalization, “because it smacks of legalization.”
Drug legalization removes all criminal penalties for producing, selling and using drugs; no country has tried it. In contrast, decriminalization, as practiced in Portugal, eliminates jail time for drug users but maintains criminal penalties for dealers. Spain and Italy have also decriminalized personal use of drugs and Mexico’s president has proposed doing the same.
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.” …
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.
Portugal has been getting good press over its decriminalization approach to drug use, including from unexpected places like the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Now, some Portuguese lawmakers are ready to take the next step. A bill to legalize the possession, cultivation, and sale of marijuana is being prepared.
Portugal has been the subject of a lot of attention lately over its decriminalization of drug possession. Although decriminalization has been in place for eight years now, it is only this year that it has caught the world’s attention. The success of Portugal’s approach was the subject of a piece by Salon writer Glenn Greenwald commissioned by the Cato Institute that was widely read and commented on earlier this year, and last week it earned kind words from a most unexpected place: the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which could find little to complain about for its 2009 World Drugs Report.
But Portugal isn’t resting on its laurels, and at least one political party there is preparing to take the country’s progressive approach to drug reform to the next level. The Leftist Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda) is preparing legislation that would legalize the possession, cultivation, and retail sales of small amounts of marijuana, as well as providing for regulated wholesale cultivation to supply the retail market.
The Bloc is also now actively encouraging the participation of ENCOD, the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies, in developing new drug laws. The alliance comes too late to influence the marijuana bill, but will provide an entree for drug reformers in the process in future drug legislation, or even revising the current marijuana bill if it does not make in through parliament this year. “The contacts between ENCOD and the Bloc were arranged by common activists and members,” explained ENCOD steering committee member and Portuguese law student, journalist, and activist Jorge Roque.
Under the draft bill, a copy of which was made available to the Chronicle, marijuana consumers could purchase “the amount needed for the average individual for a 30-day period,” as determined by the existing decriminalization law, or 15 grams of hashish and 75 grams (almost three ounces) of marijuana. The average daily dose is a half-gram of hash and 2.5 grams of pot. Individuals would be allowed to grow up to 10 plants, and could possess the 30-day amount as well as up to 10 plants.
The draft bill calls for licensed retail sales outlets authorized by municipal councils. Such retail establishments would not be allowed to sell alcohol or allow it to be consumed on the premises, would not be allowed within 500 meters of schools, and would not be allowed to have gambling machines. No one under 16 would be allowed to enter, nor would people adjudged to be mentally ill.
The draft bill prohibits advertising, but requires that packaging for marijuana products intended for retail sale clearly reveal the source, the amount, and a statement giving the World Health Organization’s position on the effects and risks of consumption. The bill also provides for the Portuguese National Institute of Pharmacy and Medicine to license the wholesale cultivation of marijuana to supply the retail trade. And it provides for an excise tax on cannabis sales to be determined during the budgetary process.
People who traffic in marijuana outside the parameters set down in the draft would face four to 12 years in prison for serious offenses, and up to four years for less serious offenses. Licensed retailers or wholesalers who breach the regulations could face imprisonment for up to three months or a fine of up to 30 days’ minimum wage.
There are widespread misconceptions about the Portuguese approach. “It is important not to confuse decriminalization with legalization,” comments Brendan Hughes of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which is, coincidentally, based in Lisbon. “Drug use remains illegal in Portugal, and anyone in possession will be stopped by the police, have the drugs confiscated and be sent before a commission.”
Nor is it uncommon in Europe to make drug use an administrative offense rather than a criminal one (putting it in the same category as not wearing a seat belt, say). What is unique, according to Mr Hughes, is that offenders in Portugal are sent to specialist “dissuasion commissions” run by the government, rather than into the judicial system. “In Portugal,” he says, “the health aspect [of the government’s response to drugs] has gone mainstream.”
The aim of the dissuasion commissions, which are made up of panels of two or three psychiatrists, social workers and legal advisers, is to encourage addicts to undergo treatment and to stop recreational users falling into addiction. They have the power to impose community work and even fines, but punishment is not their main aim. The police turn some 7,500 people a year over to the commissions. But nobody carrying anything considered to be less than a ten-day personal supply of drugs can be arrested, sentenced to jail or given a criminal record.
Officials believe that, by lifting fears of prosecution, the policy has encouraged addicts to seek treatment. This bears out their view that criminal sanctions are not the best answer. “Before decriminalization, addicts were afraid to seek treatment because they feared they would be denounced to the police and arrested,” says Manuel Cardoso, deputy director of the Institute for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Portugal’s main drugs-prevention and drugs-policy agency. “Now they know they will be treated as patients with a problem and not stigmatized as criminals.”
The number of addicts registered in drug-substitution programs has risen from 6,000 in 1999 to over 24,000 in 2008, reflecting a big rise in treatment (but not in drug use). Between 2001 and 2007 the number of Portuguese who say they have taken heroin at least once in their lives increased from just 1% to 1.1%. For most other drugs, the figures have fallen: Portugal has one of Europe’s lowest lifetime usage rates for cannabis. And most notably, heroin and other drug abuse has decreased among vulnerable younger age-groups, according to Mr. Cardoso.
The share of heroin users who inject the drug has also fallen, from 45% before decriminalization to 17% now, he says, because the new law has facilitated treatment and harm-reduction programs. Drug addicts now account for only 20% of Portugal’s HIV cases, down from 56% before. “We no longer have to work under the paradox that exists in many countries of providing support and medical care to people the law considers criminals.”
“Proving a causal link between Portugal’s decriminalization measures and any changes in drug-use patterns is virtually impossible in scientific terms,” concludes Mr Hughes. “But anyone looking at the statistics can see that drug consumption in 2001 was relatively low in European terms, and that it remains so. The apocalypse hasn’t happened.”