Portugal decriminalised drugs, from cannabis to crack

Back in 2001 an expert panel recommended that Portugal decriminalise drugs, from cannabis to crack. The government did and went one step further. As British author Johann Hari put it:

    “let’s spend all the money we currently spend on arresting drug users, trying drug users, imprisoning drug users, and just put all that money to reconnect drug addicts with society. To give them a purpose in life.”

From The Washington Post via The Independent:

    Portugal decriminalised the use of all drugs in 2001. Weed, cocaine, heroin, you name it — Portugal decided to treat possession and use of small quantities of these drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one. The drugs were still illegal, of course. But now getting caught with them meant a small fine and maybe a referral to a treatment program — not jail time and a criminal record.

    Among Portuguese adults, there are 3 drug overdose deaths for every 1,000,000 citizens. Comparable numbers in other countries range from 10.2 per million in the Netherlands to 44.6 per million in the UK, all the way up to 126.8 per million in Estonia. The EU average is 17.3 per million.

    Perhaps more significantly, the report notes that the use of “legal highs” – like so-called “synthetic” marijuana, “bath salts” and the like – is lower in Portugal than in any of the other countries for which reliable data exists. This makes a lot of intuitive sense: why bother with fake weed or dangerous designer drugs when you can get the real stuff? This is arguably a positive development for public health in the sense that many of the designer drugs that people develop to skirt existing drug laws have terrible and often deadly side effects.

According to Policy.Mic it works like this:

    If someone is found in the possession of less than a 10-day supply of anything from marijuana to heroin, he or she is sent to a three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, typically made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker. The commission recommends treatment or a minor fine; otherwise, the person is sent off without any penalty. A vast majority of the time, there is no penalty.

Here’s a selection of The success of Portugal’s decriminalisation policy – in seven charts from the British NGO Transform:


The third graph is, I think, the important one.




Social scientists are cautious about a direct causal link between the policy initiative and the measured changes; there may be other factors. Portugal, however, is clearly in a better place with respect to drugs than it was 14 years ago. The predictions of disaster were off the mark.

This graph from from the original Washington Post article shows one country, Romania, doing better than Portugal on drugs:


Other countries do almost as well. Of the major European countries France seems to perform best. The further north you go, the worse it gets. Food for thought!

Countries caught in the ‘war on drugs’ paradigm could take a look.

8 thoughts on “Portugal decriminalised drugs, from cannabis to crack”

  1. Also the criminal networks that profit so handsomely from governments artificially inflating the commodities they pedal lose the power of profit so the allure for the young or desperate to participate is reduced.

    This is as true for drugs as with other commodities under prohibition.

  2. Jumpy: I think they need to go the next step and legalize supply so that the criminal network business model really does crash. Australia’s plain packaging model might be a good approach. Ban advertizing, limit the places the drug can be used, unattractive packaging with health warnings and the banning of suppliers with criminal connections. Good quality control would also stop some of the deaths.

  3. John

    Jumpy: I think they need to go the next step and legalize supply so that the criminal network business model really does crash.

    Something like that. Legal, available and taxed like everything else.

    As for plain packaging I’m pretty sure they are already with zero effect on demand and the use on tobacco products had zero effect on what was already declining rates of ” take up “.
    Plain packages is a failure.

    Higher taxing works to a certain extent but not to the point black markets flourish and we’re back to the start. Also, as with alcohol, tobacco and other ” sin products “, such taxes disproportionately affect the poor.

    I do agree that big adds like ” GET YOUR HASH, ON SALE NOW A RELAXED BARRYS’ !! ” during Thomas the Tank Engine shouldn’t be allowed.

  4. Jumpy: You are old enough to remember Camel adds. Never got me to smoke but I was attracted to the idea of being a Camel man poling across a river with his 4WD on the raft.
    We have actually driven down nicotine taking using a raft of strategies. A blanket ban on pro nicotine advertising has been an important part of this.
    Similar strategies should be put in place as part of drug legalization.

  5. John

    Media advertising yes, definitely, but plain packaging hasn’t altered the downward trajectory of youth take up rates at all.

    ( I prefer not to have this topic switch to a plain packaging debate if we can avoid that. The one Brian has raised is far more important, so in gunna try and stay on that track )

  6. The family expert on drug matters had this to say on the Portugal experience:

    Yeah, even the (usually very conservative) Cato institute did a report on Portugal at the 10 year mark (which I cited for years..) and found it
    resulted in decreased use of most drugs (GHB use went up slightly from memory, which no-one had a good explanation for, but everything else went down). They also pumped a *lot* of money into treatment and social support though for quite a few years (although that dropped after the GFC because there was less money and other crises), which I suspect helped. Still a net saving.

    I think you’ve hit it right on the head with legalizing supply – it’s
    been the constant thorn in the Dutch cannabis policy: if you effectively decriminalize pot, but do nothing about regulating who produces it under what conditions, you have to stare ugly outcomes on the supply side in the face and admit that ‘I did that..’. And it’s one of the trickier aspects of cannabis legalization in Colorado and Washington (mainly because it’s all still illegal on the federal level, and the feds might be willing to ignore states legalizing supply, but they aren’t willing to turn a blind eye to industrial-level production, particularly when it
    overflows into other states. With substances like opioids, stable prices and stable quality go a long long way to reducing deaths.

    My line for years now has been that when you make something illegal you essentially hand all control over production, distribution, and sales of it to organized crime. It remains regulated, just who regulates it changes.

    In Australia we have something close to defacto decriminalization of most drugs in the sense that users are not seriously pursued and prosecuted. (Think about safe injection centers – they only work because the police agree not to harass people using these centers or follow them to find low level dealers.) In the mean time criminal organizations are allowed look after supply and reap serious profits.
    Police pursuit of major suppliers doesn’t seem to be reducing drug taking but will at times result in switches between drugs and variations in quality, both of which can increase the risk of overdose threats. In addition, it can mean that drug suppliers will favour potent drugs that are easier to hide and transport rather than more bulky drugs that may do less harm.

  7. Haven’t read his book yet, but heard Johann Hari interviewed by Phillip Adams, and he makes an excellent case for the total failure of the “War on Drugs”.

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