The Portugal Experiment: How Decriminalizing Drug Use Saved a Nation Facing a Drug Problem

Could the decriminalization of marijuana, cocaine, meth and even heroin be the long-sought answer to ending the War on Drugs?

In 2001, Portugal attempted to answer this question.

After overthrowing a dictator-style of government in 1974, Portugal not only gained democracy, but a drug problem as well. Drugs being smuggled in made sure people had their fix, but by the 1990’s the problem had grown to dangerous levels.

By the 1980’s, Portugal estimated that 1 in 100 people were addicted to heroin. According to the Journal of the American Bar Foundation, in the 1990’s alone, the number of drug offenders tripled, and peaked in 2000.

Portugal increased enforcement efforts in response to the problem. But more arrests, more anti-drug legislation and more users incarcerated only led to more problems.

It was after a quarter-century of this that Portugal decided to change their approach: decriminalize any and all drugs – from marijuana to heroin – and try for prevention and treatment rather than policing and punishment.

Portugal passed legislation to do this in 2001. This meant that while the drugs were still illegal, users caught with them would only pay fees and be recommended to treatment rather than thrown in jail and have possession on their record. Selling and distributing however, was still illegal.

The concept behind decriminalization comes from the idea that if we stop arresting people for drug possession, prisons and jails will not be cluttered with non-violent offenders. If users are no longer scared of prosecution and persecution for their addiction, they will be more likely to seek help for it rather than hide it.

What Happened After?

In the 15 years since Portugal decriminalized drug use, the results have been overwhelming. According to the Drug Policy Alliance:

  • The amount of prisoners for drug offenses declined from 44 percent in 1999, to 24 percent in 2013.
  • People in treatment for drugs has increased by over 60 percent from 1998 to 2011.
  • HIV and AIDS diagnoses in people who use drugs decreased exponentially from 2000 to 2013, with HIV decreasing from 1,575 to 78, and AIDS decreasing from 626 to 74.
  • The per capita social cost of drug use has decreased by 18 percent.

Portugal also has the second lowest rate of drug-induced deaths in the European Union, with only 3 out of every 1 million citizens dying from overdose.

But experts say decriminalization of these drugs isn’t the only reason this is happening; it was the newly funded treatment options that citizens now had access to. According to the Economist, “90 percent of Portugal’s anti-drug resources are now spent on treatment and prevention, 10 percent on policing and punishment.”

While arrests are still made for dealers and distributors, citizens who just regularly use not only have more help for their problem, but more support with it as well. Drugs and addicts are no longer demonized, and state funded workers go around and hand out clean needles, pipes, and offer help and other resources to those who seek it.

The skeptics of decriminalization however, look at the increased drug use in certain age groups, and suggest this as evidence that decriminalization is not working. After all, increased drug consumption was Portugal’s main concern with decriminalizing. But when interviewed by the “Time Magazine of Portugal,” Mark Thornton, the Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute, was asked about the prospect of increased drug consumption:

“I responded that you cannot know the answer to that question in advance,” says Thornton. “You will never know the answer to that question, and that the question was unimportant.”

Many others agree with Thornton’s assessment. Perhaps the goal of decriminalization is not to lower drug consumption (not initially at least), but create more opportunity for users to get help.

Meanwhile….

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the use of illegal drugs in the US increased from 14.5 million users in 2007, to 19.8 million in 2013. The Drug Policy Alliance says we spend more than $51 billion a year on the War on Drugs.

In 2014, 83 percent of drug violations were due to possession, and more than 46 percent of federal inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses.

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