20 April 2016
As diplomats gather at the United Nations in New York this week to consider the future of global drug policy, one Portuguese official, João Goulão, will likely command attention that far outstrips his country’s influence in practically any other area. That’s because 16 years ago, Portugal took a leap and decriminalized the possession of all drugs — everything from marijuana to heroin. By most measures, the move has paid off.
Today, Portuguese authorities don’t arrest anyone found holding what’s considered less than a 10-day supply of an illicit drug — a gram of heroin, ecstasy, or amphetamine, two grams of cocaine, or 25 grams of cannabis. Instead, drug offenders receive a citation and are ordered to appear before so- called “dissuasion panels” made up of legal, social, and psychological experts. Most cases are simply suspended. Individuals who repeatedly come before the panels may be prescribed treatment, ranging from motivational counseling to opiate substitution therapy.
“We had a lot of criticism at first,” recalled Goulão, a physician specializing in addiction treatment whose work led Portugal to reform its drug laws in 2000, and who is today its national drug coordinator. After decriminalizing, the first inquiries Portugal received from the International Narcotics Control Board — the quasi-judicial UN oversight body established by the UN drug convention system — were sharp and scolding.
“Now things have changed completely,” he went on. “We are pointed to as an example of best practices inside the spirit of the conventions.” Indeed, Werner Sipp, the new head of the board, said as much at the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna earlier this year.
‘It was the combination of the law and these services that made it a success. It’s very difficult to find people in Portugal who disagree with this model.’
Though often narrowly assessed in reference to its decriminalization law, Portugal’s experience over the last decade and a half speaks as much to its free public health system, extensive treatment programs, and the hard to quantify trickle down effects of the legislation. In a society where drugs are less stigmatized, problem users are more likely to seek out care. Police, even if they suspect someone of using drugs, are less likely to bother them. Though at least 25 countries have introduced some form of decriminalization, Portugal’s holistic model and its use of dissuasion panels sets it apart.
The rate of new HIV infections in Portugal has fallen precipitously since 2001, the year its law took effect, declining from 1,016 cases to only 56 in 2012. Overdose deaths decreased from 80 the year that decriminalization was enacted to only 16 in 2012. In the US, by comparison, more than 14,000 people died in 2014 from prescription opioid overdoses alone. Portugal’s current drug-induced death rate, three per million residents, is more than five times lower than the European Union’s average of 17.3, according to EU figures.