Portuguese Decriminalization of Drugs


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

In a previous series, I discussed the history and the possible outcomes of the Mexican Drug War. In Mexico, the government has launched attack after attack on the drug cartels, with the cartels themselves responding with episodes of barbaric violence. In this series, I wanted to take a look at a country whose policy has a 180 degree difference with Mexico’s: that of Portugal. If you are not familiar with Portuguese drug policy, it is one of decriminalization. This approach is not to be confused with total legalization, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. Under this policy, should you be caught with less than ten days’ supply of a controlled substance, you will not face prosecution: instead, it is a civil offense, with a possible range of sanctions serving as punishment. We will look at these in more depth later, but suffice it to say, you will never face prison for recreational drug use in Portugal. In this series of articles, we will examine the road that brought Portugal to this choice, which seems to go against all of the Drug War’s orthodoxy, and that allows it to stand almost alone in the western world.

This radical approach was taken to solve a heinous problem: an addiction crisis hitherto unseen in a European country. In the late 1980s, almost one per cent of the population was hooked on heroin. It was a crisis that affected every strata of society, and can be readily compared to the opioid crisis facing the United States today. This, then, is where we need to start this new series.

The causes of the Portuguese drug crisis are manifold; an issue like this doesn’t simply appear overnight. Until the Carnation Revolution of April 1974, Portugal, like neighbouring Spain, was in the grip of a fascist dictatorship. In Portugal’s case, the dictator was Antonio Salazar of the Estado Novo (New State) regime, until he was replaced by Marcello Caetano in 1968. The Estado Novo was an exceptionally authoritarian regime, and there are two large components of their control which contributed to the crisis. Under the regime, education beyond the most basic level, which had only been made available to all in the 1960s, was far from widespread. Secondary education only became widespread in Portugal in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For the fascist government, the aim was a docile population, but its effects would outlast the end of the dictatorship. 

The other keystone of authoritarian policy that influenced the drug epidemic was the Estado Novo’s drug policy. The state pushed a message of morality upon its inhabitants at all times, with a rallying cry of “Deus, Patria, Familia” or “God, Homeland, Family.” One such threat to Portuguese morality, much like that of 1980s American morality, were drugs. Coca-Cola was banned, and a cigarette lighter required a license to own. However, in the Portuguese colonies, such as Mozambique, Coca-Cola could be easily obtained from South Africa. Marijuana too was far easier to come by than in Portugal. When Portugal decolonized in 1974 following a bloody war that concluded with the collapse of the government in the Carnation Revolution, marijuana returned to Portugal with the troops. While this is not a contributing factor to the epidemic, for obvious reasons, it does show that for all of the Estado Novo’s power, drugs still proliferated, just as in the United States.

The perfect storm of conditions had been laid for the epidemic. The population was uneducated on addiction or safe drug use, and drugs began to reach a population which had never experienced them before, except the occasional joint while working as colonial administrators or as troops stationed overseas. In the Algarve, the idyllic and beautiful coastal province in Portugal’s southern tip, the 1980s and the liberalization of Portugal brought money and prospects for all. They also brought heroin to its shores from across the sea in Morocco. The drug rapidly spread everywhere. Like a cancerous vine, it crept to every level of society. You could wander the poverty-stricken streets of Lisbon’s Casal Ventoso, having to avoid needles in the gutters with every step, or go to high-society events and find socialites and businessmen shooting up. Everyone who lived in that era of Portuguese society seems to have their own story. Take João Goulão, a doctor and one of the foremost persons behind the decriminalization of drugs in the nation, who was first offered heroin when he was 20. The heroin epidemic was not only causing addiction, however. It was spreading HIV and hepatitis across the nation at an alarming, lightning pace. The Portuguese government initially responded to the issue by following America’s example: passing tough laws and punishing users as criminals.

It is likely that the widespread nature of the epidemic was what finally stirred the Portuguese government to act. As Goulão said in an interview with Huffington Post, “it seemed everyone at the time had family or a friend with a drug habit. These were not ‘outsiders,’ but part of our communities. These were decent people with problems.”

When addiction and disease are not simply something which is buried away, hidden in newspaper articles, its victims casting a dark shadow as venomous sub-human ‘addicts’ who need to be punished, or bearers of weak mind and spirit, only then, can true change be made. When it is not a stranger in an alleyway shooting up with a dirty needle, but your friend, brother, or sister, that is what causes a nation to understand that it is not an issue which affects the proverbial “other,” but one which can affect anyone, and one that needs to be dealt with a course of compassion. We can only hope that the opioid epidemic in the United States will be dealt with similarly. In the next article, I will cover the progression of Portuguese drug wars which led to decriminalization, before closing this series with an analysis of where Portugal now stands, and its aspirations for the future.

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