Heightened sense A critical view of drug laws in the UK and worldwide


A decade on from decriminalisation…

The Portuguese strategy was aimed at tackling drug-related harms such as blood-borne diseases. Photo credit: Nicolas Raymond

Decriminalisation and a harm-reduction approach appear to have worked in Portugal. It could be a success in the UK too

The dawn of a new millennium may not have seen commercial flights to the Moon and the first detection of extraterrestrial intelligence as Arthur C Clarke envisaged, but 2001 was a world-changing year in many other respects.

Wikipedia launched that January, changing the face of plagiarism forever, while passenger-filled airliners smashing into the World Trade Center focused international attention on a supposed clash of cultures that continues to this day, judging by the lack of haste in misattributing last week's mass murder in Norway to Islamist extremists.

But a decade ago this month, shortly before the war on terror began, Portugal began quietly withdrawing from the war on drugs, leading the way in treating addiction not as a security problem or a criminal-justice one, but an issue of public health.

And so they decriminalised drugs. All of them.

The Portuguese strategy is not to be misunderstood as some kind of libertarian paradise. Decriminalisation is not legalisation, and the change in the law was made, with cross-party consensus, with harm-reduction the main objective. The aim was tackling the country's problem of heroin addiction, and particularly the spread of blood-borne diseases – Portugal was seeing 2000 new cases of HIV every year in a population of just 10m. The "just say no" messages refer to used syringes rather than drugs themselves.

Previously, drug possession for personal use could attract a prison sentence of up to three months, or, if the quantity of drugs seized amounted to more than three days' worth, a year. (Already much lower than the obscene maximum sentence of seven years for personal possession in the UK.)

The state still interferes with drug users: it just doesn't send them to prison.

Instead, those found to be in possession of small amounts of drugs are placed in front of the rather pompous-sounding Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, a three-man expert panel made up of a social worker, a psychiatrist and a lawyer, who determine whether the drug user is addicted and mandates one of several options. The panel can agree that there is no addiction and send the drug user on their merry way. They can impose a fine. Or the they can order drug treatment. If they try to make you go to rehab, there's little opportunity to say "No, no, no".

Ten years is probably sufficient experimental time on which to judge a policy. That decade appears thus far to have been a success.

Drug use overall has risen, but no more than in fellow southern European Spain and Italy, and not among young people. Lifetime use of cannabis went from 7.6% to 11.7%, ecstasy from 0.7% to 1.3%, cocaine from 0.9% to 1.9% and heroin from 0.7% to 1.3%. Proportionally they could be seen as large increases but the actual numbers involved are relatively small, and it's hardly the apocalyptic explosion in drug use that prohibitionists fear.

The incidence of drugs being detected in post-mortem toxicology is up, but this has been attributed to more widespread testing. The actual number of coroner verdicts of deaths by drug poisoning is down.

Similarly, the number of addicts entering treatment doubled, although I'm reliably told that addiction is still very publicly visible and drugs sold openly on the streets of Lisbon – but then the latter happens in many parts of London too, and not always the rough ones.

For all that southern Europe is considered inherently different to Anglo-Saxon culture, open drug-dealing is maybe not all that London and Lisbon have in common. Again, this is only second-hand knowledge, but this blogger can recall discussing the two countries' respective approaches to drugs with a Portuguese acquaintance at university (which I coincidentally also began in 2001). Commenting on their high teenage pregnancy rate and proclivity for drink-driving, he joked that it's the most English country in continental Europe.

Other decrimalisation experiments – usually more limited and restricted to cannabis – have not always had the same outcome even withing different states of the same nation, as in South Australia compared to Western Australia.

But maybe the UK and Portugal are not so different. And maybe a policy based on harm-reduction rather than punishment could work here too. There is no reason at all not to at least give it a shot. Maybe in another decade's time I'd be summarising what an outstanding success it's been.

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Further reading
“PORTUGAL” New Development, Trends and in-depth information on selected issues


Drug Policy Profiles - Portugal

Posted by Christopher White

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