Portuguese Decriminalization of Drugs Part III

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Third in a series on the Decriminalization of Drugs in Portugal
By Joe Chivers

In the previous installment of this series on Portugal, we discussed the intricacies and effects of decriminalization. In this final instalment, we’ll look at recent developments in Portuguese drug law, and how the country is looking to take on the future.

In the years following 2001, when the drug policy was signed into Portuguese law, a number of significant changes were observed:

  1. First, and most importantly, the amount of people getting treatment dramatically increased. In 1999 just 6040 people were receiving substitution treatment, but this number had skyrocketed to 14,877 in 2003, a total increase of 147 per cent.
  2. There was a tangible decrease in the amount of harm being done to drug users. The number of HIV diagnoses decreased by 17 per cent, while the number of drug-related deaths also fell. For full disclosure, we should state that the number of recorded drug-related deaths has since risen, but this is likely due to an increase in the number of autopsies being performed. However, it has still not hit the same level as before decriminalization.
  3. Drug use increased, however, there are a few extenuating circumstances that should be taken into account. Some theorize that as drug users are no longer living in fear of prison time, they tended to speak more honestly. Another important fact to note is the use of heroin and cannabis also increased in Spain and Italy. Among adults, the rate of drug use was no higher than in countries close to Portugal where the law did not change.
  4. Following on from the last point, drug use among youths fell.
  5. Compared to the rest of Europe, the number of drug deaths is tiny. The average number of drug deaths per million in Europe as a whole is 17.3, while in Portugal, it is just 3.

So, bearing in mind these five points, decriminalization has been a resounding success. However, what is the future of this permissive policy? What more can be done?

Some have argued that more needs to be done to treat those addicted to alcohol across the country, with a study in 2005 estimating that over 10 per cent of the country’s population is either an alcoholic or drank excessively.

However, the drug policy, the cornerstone of Portugal’s liberal attitude to drugs, has yet to be threatened. During the last recession, when Portugal was in dire economic straits, with an unemployment rate of over 15 per cent, treatment centers continued to operate. As noted by TS Cabral in his paper “The 15th Anniversary of the Portguese Drug Policy: Its History, Its Success and Its Future,” there is now a general consensus that drug users are not criminals, and decriminalization has gained supporters in even the most conservative segments of society.

It has also been argued that the state is being overly paternalistic, and the legal requirement to go before a dissuasion commission has been criticized as infringing upon individual rights. This argument, however, hinges upon how libertarian your own personal views are. Is the protection of public health more important than individual rights, for example? This debate has also led more libertarian factions to call for complete legalization of drugs. Were this to occur, it is argued that sales on the black market would fall dramatically, while the standard of drugs on sale would improve. Cabral argues that this would require drug users to no longer be seen as having an illness, and would reflect that drug use has finally been accepted by society. However, this need not be the case entirely. I would suggest that those who are likely to see every drug user as ill would still continue to do so, while those who take a more nuanced approach, would generally be able to recognize when someone has a problem, as we can with alcohol. However, complete legalization of drugs does not seem likely for the foreseeable future. The legalization of marijuana may not be quite as far away.

In January of this year, the country’s Doctor’s Association called for the legalization of marijuana-based medicines, on the same day that the Portuguese parliament begun to debate allowing the cultivation of marijuana for personal use. This followed the establishment of a marijuana plantation in central Portugal in 2017, where high-THC marijuana will be grown for export. In February, a prominent MP and member of the Parliamentary Health Committee, called for a legalization of the drug. The motion took some inspiration from the US’ approach, suggesting that it only be sold for recreational use to those over 21. However, the motion does not argue for dispensaries, instead suggesting that cannabis be sold at pharmacies instead, as happens in Uruguay. It has also been suggested that the drug be sold at street value, so as to avoid the problem sometimes seen in legal US states where the black market is cheaper, and thus still attractive to the poor.

It seems unthinkable that Portugal will abandon its liberal drug policy. As noted earlier, the notion of drug addiction as an illness, rather than a criminal offense, has found traction among even the most conservative elements of society. However, we must also question whether Portugal’s policy will be adopted by other countries. For some, such as Spain, where drug use in private is not prosecuted, there is still a need for drug use in public to be treated as a civil, rather than a criminal offense. For others, such as the UK, any movement towards decriminalization would be seen as a breakthrough, with the government’s current stance more akin to the prohibition-era United States. As we noted in the first part of this series, Portugal’s drug policy grew from adversity. When faced with a drug crisis that engulfed most of the country’s people, the government took action. Whether the same will occur in the US as an attempt to solve the opioid epidemic is yet to be seen, but under this current administration, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Joe is a print and online journalist, based in Europe, who specializes in writing on war and social issues.