Portugal's Successful Drug Decriminalization
From the Cato study "Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies":
On July 1, 2001, a nationwide law in Portugal took effect that decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Under the new legal framework, all drugs were “decriminalized,” not “legalized.” Thus, drug possession for personal use and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited, but violations of those prohibitions are deemed to be exclusively administrative violations and are removed completely from the criminal realm. Drug trafficking continues to be prosecuted as a criminal offense.
None of the fears promulgated by opponents of Portuguese decriminalization has come to fruition, whereas many of the benefits predicted by drug policymakers from instituting a decriminalization regime have been realized. While drug addiction, usage, and associated pathologies continue to skyrocket in many EU states, those problems—in virtually every relevant category—have been either contained or measurably improved within Portugal since 2001. In certain key demographic segments, drug usage has decreased in absolute terms in the decriminalization framework, even as usage across the EU continues to increase, including in those states that continue to take the hardest line in criminalizing drug possession and usage.
By freeing its citizens from the fear of prosecution and imprisonment for drug usage, Portugal has dramatically improved its ability to encourage drug addicts to avail themselves of treatment. The resources that were previously devoted to prosecuting and imprisoning drug addicts are now available to provide treatment programs to addicts. Those developments, along with Portugal’s shift to a harm-reduction approach, have dramatically improved drugrelated social ills, including drug-caused mortalities and drug-related disease transmission. Ideally, treatment programs would be strictly voluntary, but Portugal’s program is certainly preferable to criminalization.
The Portuguese have seen the benefits of decriminalization, and therefore there is no serious political push in Portugal to return to a criminalization framework. Drug policymakers in the Portuguese government are virtually unanimous in their belief that decriminalization has enabled a far more effective approach to managing Portugal’s addiction problems and other drug-related afflictions. Since the available data demonstrate that they are right, the Portuguese model ought to be carefully considered by policymakers around the world.
The data show that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success. Within this success lie self-evident lessons that should guide drug policy debates around the world.