In 1999, Portugal was in the midst of a drug crisis. Nearly 1 percent of the population was addicted to heroin. Drug-related AIDS deaths were far from uncommon — in fact, Portugal had the highest rates of drug-related AIDS deaths in the entire European Union.
In 2001, Portugal did not increase drug-related penalties, develop a specialized police force or simply arrest more people. Instead, the country did the unthinkable: It decriminalized the possession of all drugs.
What was the result? Fifteen years later researchers have the answer.
By 2001, both law enforcement and health officials in Portugal began to realize that criminalizing drugs was hurting more than helping. People were diagnosed with — and dying from — HIV, AIDS, tuberculosis, and hepatitis B and C at an alarming rate due to unsafe needle practices. Placing addicts in jail did nothing to curb the high levels of drug abuse.
With seemingly nothing to lose, the Portuguese government decided to decriminalize all drugs, hoping that a more humanitarian approach might make it easier for addicts to seek help and recover. Addicts were no longer sent to prison, but instead received fines and minor penalties. Instead of being automatically sent to rehab centers, addicts were encouraged to seek treatment voluntarily with the understanding that it’s impossible to “force” sobriety.
What did drug decriminalization do?
Drug abuse did not skyrocket. In fact, by most metrics, it did the opposite.
Drug use in Portugal is now lower than it is in most other European countries. Compared to 2001, significantly fewer people used drugs within the past year or the past month including people aged 15 to 24, the population at greatest risk of starting drug use. The number of deaths associated with illicit drug use has also decreased, and drug users are no longer being diagnosed with HIV or AIDS at a greater-than-average rate.
“The reality is that Portugal’s drug situation has improved significantly in several key areas,” writes George Murkin, policy and communications officer of Transform, a charitable think tank that campaigns for the legal regulation of drugs.
The only metric in which Portugal hasn’t improved is lifetime drug use prevalence — in other words, the number of people who used drugs at least once in their lives is roughly the same as it was in 2001, with roughly 12 percent of the population having used drugs at least once in 2001 and roughly 13 percent in 2014. Researchers argue, however, that this metric is the least accurate measure of the current drug climate. As mentioned previously, the number of individuals who used drugs within the past year or month — both of which are more accurate measures — is considerably lower than in 2001.
The success of drug decriminalization
How did drug decriminalization reduce the number of addicts and solve Portugal’s drug crisis?
It’s difficult to help people recover from a serious illness while simultaneously telling them that they’re criminals and deserve to be punished. Since addicts were no longer forced into jails or prisons, they could spend more time working on their recovery with friends and loved ones. Addicts who overdosed could receive medical help without fear of losing their career or home.
Chances are, however, that decriminalization wasn’t the only thing that improved the drug crisis. At the same time that Portugal’s government was decriminalizing drug use, the country also expanded and improved treatment and prevention programs, making it easier for citizens to receive evidence-based care for addiction. Harm reduction programs were also introduced, as well as social integration programs designed to help recovered addicts succeed in the workforce and live independently.
“Portugal’s shift towards a more health-centered approach to drugs, as well as wider health and social policy changes, are equally, if not more, responsible for the positive changes observed,” writes Murkin.
What this means for the future
Portugal is far from the only country to decriminalize drugs. As of March 2016, 25 countries have either partially or fully decriminalized drug use.
Slowly but surely, the world is moving away from criminalizing what most researchers now recognize as a health crisis. Maybe one day, the United States will join the crowd.
Sovereign Health’s addiction treatment program uses both technology and counseling to identify each patient’s neurological state as well as any lifestyle issues that could be hampering his or her path to sobriety. Here at Sovereign, we do more than help our patients through withdrawal — we provide patients with numerous therapy options as well as restorative activities designed to both educate and prevent relapse. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at email@example.com.