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

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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.