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16 Years Later: What Happened After Portugal Decriminalized Drugs in 2001?

June 13, 2017
(rusm/iStock)
By the late 1990s, Portugal had reached a crisis point. Facing unprecedented rates of addiction, prison overcrowding, and a rapidly growing HIV epidemic, the country was in dire need of a solution. Change finally occurred when in 2001, it decriminalized all drugs, embarking on the first step of a great nationwide experiment.

Decriminalization is not legalization; drug offenders may still incur penalties, but the idea is to redirect enforcement resources and prevent flooding prisons with non-violent offenders. Not all decriminalization models look the same, but now that Portugal’s has been in effect for 16 years, we look back to see what effect this particular model has had on its society.

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Drug Decriminalization in History

In Portugal, drugs are still illegal, but any user carrying less than 10 days’ worth of illicit substances will simply have their supply confiscated. They will then undergo an assessment with a social worker, psychologist, and lawyer. Only a small fraction of users will experience further consequences. These can range from a few days’ community service to a ban on visiting venues in which the person is known to obtain or use drugs. Some high-risk cases may receive invitations to undergo treatment. Drug rehab is voluntary in all but the most exceptional circumstances.

Portugal has seen significant positive change in the realm of disease prevention, with nationwide HIV rates decreasing dramatically since decriminalization.

Portugal’s geography made it a hot spot for drug trafficking between Europe and Africa. Heroin grew in popularity in the 1980s, and despite the implementation of government-funded methadone and needle exchange programs, blood-borne illness had become rampant by the 90s. Though the country seemed to have consumed drugs at much lower rates than its neighbors, it still had the highest rate of HIV amongst injecting drug users in the EU, with CIA estimates claiming that by 2001, over 22,000 people were living with HIV/AIDS.

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Still, the decision to decriminalize was not undertaken lightly. The only modern Western country to attempt decriminalization had been Italy, and its program failed to reap many discernible positive consequences. Many fierce opponents, especially those from the more conservative Social Democratic Party, argued that abuse would skyrocket and the country would become a hub for drug tourism. Ultimately, the more progressive Socialist party was able to push the law through, mostly due to its near majority in parliament.

The Effects of Portugal’s Drug Decriminalization Model

Aspects of Portugal’s model have been used to either support or critique decriminalization as an answer to various social problems. While many of these statistics can be difficult to measure and interpret, it would appear that it’s had had both positive and negative impacts. Let’s look at a few.

Disease Prevention

Portugal has seen significant positive change in the realm of disease prevention, with nationwide HIV rates decreasing dramatically since decriminalization. In 2014, only 40 intravenous drug users tested positive for HIV, down from 1,482 in 2000. The good news doesn’t stop there–after a decade and a half of battling Hepatitis C with lackluster results, the Portuguese government committed to 100% coverage of the disease. Since then, 96% of those who finished treatment have been effectively cured.

Drug Use Rates

Many proponents of decriminalization claim that Portugal managed to decrease overall drug use, but it really depends on how we choose to interpret the statistics. Lifetime drug users (defined as people who have tried any drug, even once) actually rose from 8% to 12% between 2001-2007, then declined once more to 9.5% in 2014. ‘Problem’ drug users–those who have come into contact with the police or rehabilitation facilities due to their drug habit–seem to have decreased by more than 10%. However, these statistics could be flawed due to differences in measurements through the years. Past month and year drug use has remained steadily low, with only 5% of 18-24 year olds, for example, having used cannabis in the past month.

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Lack of information makes it difficult to plot usage of ‘harder’ drugs over time. Comparing Portugal to its neighbors, however, puts it in a generally favorable light. For instance, as of 2012, Portugal’s lifetime cocaine use per capita was about one-tenth that of Spain’s and one-fifth that of France’s.

As of 2012, Portugal’s lifetime cocaine use per capita was about one-tenth that of Spain’s and one-fifth that of France’s.

Crime Rates

Though we’ve seen some positive benefits, it should come as no surprise that large, sweeping changes to the legal system have also resulted in some negative repercussions. Arguably, the most glaring issue is the rise in homicides, which climbed by about 60% from 2001-2007. They have evened out since, though, and currently sit at a little more than 10% more than they were pre-decriminalization.

Incarcerations

The criminal landscape has certainly changed, but it doesn’t seem to be growing smaller. Incarcerations have risen slightly from 2001 to 2012 despite the fact that fewer than half as many people are now incarcerated for drug crimes. Those who are pro-decriminalization often point to this statistic as a sign that police are now unburdened from their duties in persecuting small drug offenses, and are now able to tackle more substantial crime. Others argue that lax drug laws have led to more crime, and back up their claim by referencing the growing underground population reported by undercover agents interviewed in the study What Can We Learn From the Portuguese Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs?

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Takeaways From Portugal’s Drug Decriminalization

Many people have cited the Portuguese model as evidence that the US should adopt a similar policy. It isn’t certain, however, that we could apply these techniques in America as it currently stands. The successes achieved in Portugal were not due to decriminalization alone–the country stands on a strong foundation of socialized public health care, which differs enormously from what we see in the US.

America also has significantly greater problems with intentional homicide, gang-related crime, and gun violence. A growth in the already prominent underground criminal scene could have disastrous social consequences.

Finally, it’s important to step back and remember that large-scale social transformation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Portugal, like the rest of the world, has witnessed unprecedented change since 2001. Factors including the technological revolution, the growth of the EU, and the economic crisis must all be considered. Still, anyone advocating for decriminalization should analyze the results carefully. From this data, we can reap valuable insight into the successes and setbacks which may lie on the road ahead.

Serene Desiree's Bio Image

Serene Desiree

Serene Desiree is a standup comedian, freelance writer, and (very) amateur historian. Follow her silly ramblings on Twitter @SDezzles.

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  • Nicholas Edison

    A good read

  • Gustavo

    Very mature and impartial analysis. Excellent read. I believe this is what journalism should be (i.e.: not the thoughtless reproduction of arguments from one or just a few perspectives).

  • marbs

    i would like to see some feedback from some of the criminal fraternity and the general population, any chance?

  • Tony Nunes

    I appreciate the desire to cover both positive and negative outcomes on any issue, but the main “negative outcomes” covered in this article appear to be spurious, perhaps even concocted and knowingly false. At the very least, no justification was given for linking them to the change in the drug possession laws, or proving they were real.

    For example, an increase in homicides and “underground activity” is presented as a negative outcome. I am Portuguese and have read many articles about this issue and never before heard this claim being made. What is the justification for doing so in this article? No plausible link is given. Was the increase in killings driven by “drug gangs” connected to “underground activity”? If so, it’s not because of increased drug usage and sales because drug use *did not increase* in any meaningful way. If this increase indeed *was* due to “drug gang” activity (although this is not even established in the article), perhaps it was because their profits shrank and battles for “turf” ensued. If that were the case, would the author argue it is preferable to have policies that *increase* the profits of drug gangs, to keep them more pacified?! In fact, it is more likely the (temporary) rise in homicides observed in those years was a consequence of the financial crisis precipitated by US-driven financial policy (which is known to have also led to huge increases in suicide in many countries).

    Also, claiming the increase in reported lifetime drug use as another negative outcome is most likely wrong. The increase in *self-reported* lifetime usage is more likely due to two factors:

    a) people are much more likely to respond honestly to having done something that is not considered a criminal act (i.e. after decriminalization) than when it *is* a criminal act (i.e. before)

    b) after 10+ years, the demographics have changed significantly: half of an entire, older generation (with very low lifetime drug usage rates) has died off, and the number of immigrants from poor countries, who may have higher rates of drug usage, has increased

    Why did the author not mention these as likely contributors to the change in that statistic and instead make it sound as if it may indicate a *real* increase in drug usage as a result of decriminalization, a conclusion that more objective measures do not support?

    It seems the author was trying hard to practically invent “negative outcomes”, perhaps quoting the rhetoric of a small minority of disgruntled politicians or biased researchers (more than likely not even Portuguese ones). There is virtually no debate in Portugal about the decriminalization policy: even most politicians who fear-mongered about the law before it was passed now either admit it was a good idea, or don’t consider it an issue worth pursuing, thereby implicitly condoning the policy.

    But the author’s bizarre conclusions run in the opposite direction: with a claimed extrapolation that decriminalization could lead to criminal mayhem in the U.S., even though this is is unsupported by any real-world evidence, but instead follows from spurious arguments, bad logic, bad reporting and wild speculation. A question for her: has the full *legalization* of Cannabis in places like Colorado and California led to anything remotely like that? The answer is simple: no it hasn’t, and yet some keep fear mongering that it will anywhere else it is tried — or even if lesser measures such as decriminalization are put into effect. This is truly dubious reasoning.

    On the other hand, it is noteworthy that the author goes through contortions to try to explain away some of the well-known *positive outcomes* of decriminalization in Portugal as possibly being due to other factors, even though that is *not likely* and they are exactly the kinds of issues that would be affected by the policy.

    Sorry, but the more I analyze it, I am led to the conclusion this article is an example of “Fake News” or at the very least, very poor and irresponsible reporting that subtly tries to mislead people by appearing to be “balanced”, when it is not. Would it be too much to ask for full disclosure from the author whether she has any ties to the pharmaceutical industry or any other organization that could see its profits, influence and/or power decline with more humane and objectively-based drug laws?

    It is unfortunate that we have to ask such questions, but it is warranted by real-world events. Even professional researchers have been caught intentionally distorting data to feed fears about Cannabis decriminalization and legalization and make false claims, such as increases in youth Cannabis usage. There was an example of that pointed out in this very website:

    https://www.leafly.com/news/science-tech/how-scientists-debunked-a-study-about-medical-marijuana-laws-and

    • Dude, simmer down. The author did quite a good job, presented several sides. As we all know, there are pros and cons to everything. Surely there are cons to decriminalization. Also the author didn’t make an exhaustive list of reason why things could have happened because this is an editorial not a peer reviewed research paper. Ultimately your response comes across as rude.

    • Facts matter

      Excellent analysis

  • Lutch

    Informative and well written; thank you for having contributed this piece for all Google searches to find now.
    Keep up contributing, Serene Desiree

  • Fred Bauer

    Wouldn’t it be better to look at crime statistics from the perspective of reported crimes, rather than incarcerations? In the USA some places have extremely low closure rates.