Blog | Nothing To Lose: Lessons from Portugal’s Drug Policy Reform

Blog | Nothing To Lose: Lessons from Portugal’s Drug Policy Reform

By Pau Sicat

It is quite rare that a government would propose drastic solutions like decriminalising all drugs as a way to alleviate the country’s drug problems, yet Portugal has done just that. Current day Portugal is like a dream come true for recreational drug users. In 2001, the government decriminalised all drugs, and sought to implement drug policies which effectively shifted the government’s focus from penalising recreational drug use and redirected it towards more rehabilitative measures that focus on health, treatment and reintegration. However, the question on whether or not Portugal’s drug reform would bring about similar success in other countries struggling with the war on drugs like the Philippines, the US, the UK and some countries in the Middle East remains unknown. Why does Portugal’s drug policies work so well for their country? Could other countries potentially follow suit with a policy transfer and recontextualise the drug policies through amendments to suit their situation better?


The Portuguese Colonial War occurred from 1961 to 1974 in the country’s African colonies which led to a great number of soldiers being exposed to narcotics during their time overseas. This eventually led to Portugal’s drug crisis in the late 1990s. In the late 1990s, Portugal saw an escalation of problematic drug use with an estimated 1% of the population of a little over 10 million were addicted to heroin. This meant that 1 in every 100 Portuguese were addicted to heroin. At the time, the country was also dealing with high rates of HIV infection, ranking the highest in the European Union. In an attempt to tackle Portugal’s drug problem, the government formed the Commission for the National Strategy for Drug Control on February 16, 1998 and entrusted it with creating a proposal for a national strategy to combat drugs. [5] The process resulted in policies for the decriminalisation of illicit drugs, from marijuana to cocaine to heroin which ultimately shifted Portugal’s focus from criminal punishment to treatment and other rehabilitative measures.

Portugal’s move towards decriminalisation of drugs sought to implement the following policies to combat drug use across the country. [1]:

  • The National Strategy for the Fight Against Drugs and Drug Addiction (1999-2004): The strategy decriminalised drug use and reclassified drug use, possession, and purchase as civil offenses and does not go into the offender’s criminal record.
  • The National Plan for the Reduction of Addictive Behaviours and Dependencies (2013-2020): This policy picks up from the 1999 policy with the aim of reducing drug demand and drug supply by taking a wider and more unified stance towards drugs and addiction which includes substances, gambling, alcohol, prescription medications and anabolic steroids.

Decriminalisation of Drugs: Radical or Reasonable?

Drugs are not legalised in Portugal, rather they are decriminalised. The Legalisation of drugs means the use, possession, manufacture and supply of narcotics do  not hold any criminal penalty. On the other hand, decriminalisation of drugs removes criminal penalties but not civil penalties for low-level offences. [4] Furthermore, offenders are directed to the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction. The commission is made up of three specialised experts assessing the person; an attorney, a social worker and a psychiatrist. If all three professionals classify the person as having an addiction problem, they can either order them to do community service or offer them treatment; they cannot impose treatment on them. [4] In a report carried out by the Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit organisation based in New York, the number of people in Portugal incarcerated for drug law violations has seen a decrease from 44% in 1999 to 24% in 2013. [1]

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a policy of drug decriminalisation would make an effective solution to public health, social, and public safety issues surrounding the criminalization of drug possession. Their 2017 report lists the following to support the push towards drug decriminalisation policies in the case of the US. [1]:

  • Drastically reduces the number of people arrested, incarcerated, or otherwise swept into the justice system, thereby allowing people, their families and communities to avoid the many harms that flow from drug arrests, incarceration, and the lifelong burden of a criminal record;
  • Alleviates racial, ethnic and income-based disparities in the criminal justice system;
  • Improves the cost-effectiveness of limited public health resources;
  • Revises the current law enforcement incentive structure and redirects resources to prevent serious and violent crime;
  • Creates a climate in which people who are using drugs have an incentive to seek treatment;
  • Improves treatment outcomes (when treatment is called for);
  • Removes barriers to the implementation of practices that reduce the potential harms of drug use, such as drug checking (adulterant screening); and
  • Improves relationships between law enforcement agencies and the communities they have sworn to protect and serve.

Decriminalisation in Other Countries

Looking at how countries all over the world are tackling their war on drugs, countries like Ecuador have also moved toward decriminalisation as a solution to their country’s drug trafficking problems – such as in 2008 to reduce drug cartel activity. According to a 2019 report, Ecuador’s decriminalisation policies sent a shockwave through the population.Religiosity and morality are woven into their culture, which makes it difficult to garner support for drug reforms. Ecuador’s drug reform policies are not seeing the same success as Portugal, their government funding and oversight towards rehabilitation centres and other public health services meant to help addicts were lacking insufficient and therefore, largely inefficient. [6]

On the other hand, in 2012, Croatia decriminalised marijuana and implemented liberal policies to cover harder drugs. Those who get caught with harder drugs do not face jail time and instead potentially face fines, community service and rehabilitation. [7] Croatia’s number of offenders have not made any significant decrease since the drug policy reform. According to research, Croatia continues to have a massive problem with inefficiency and a lack of human resources and financial support for treatment programs. Furthermore, prevention continues to be a weak point of Croatian drug policy as it is based predominantly based on ineffective legal deterrence through punishment. Evaluation mechanisms of treatment, prevention and reintegration programs are insufficiently developed especially for drug offenders after serving their sentence. [8]

In the cases of Ecuador and Croatia, despite both countries implementing decriminalisation of drugs to some extent, neither of their governments sufficiently funded their public health sector for addicts which is why it has not seen much success overall. On the other hand, Portugal has government funding and efficient oversight to back up their level of commitment to their drug reform, which is why they have made the progress in their ongoing war on drugs.

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