Portugal, U.S. and Mexico: Lessons from Drug Decriminalization

by Mekalyn Rose
Staff Writer

This is the first article of a two part series discussing drug decriminalization and its implications for Portugal, the United States and Mexico.

The infamous War on Drugs continues to retain a prominent seat among the most hotly contested debates in both local and international politics. The spectrum of approaches for dealing with drug use and distribution ranges from zero tolerance, death penalty consequences in places like Indonesia, to careful regulation of certain classes of substances, to complete decriminalization in Portugal. Within the United States, the debate over legalization of certain drugs with potential medical benefits has gained traction, albeit slowly, while concerns have risen regarding the monster opioid crisis threatening every economic class. In an era when commonly viewing issues in black and white terms has ineffectively addressed the grey area topic of drugs, there begs the question: where do we draw the line between moral ideology and societal benefit? More importantly, what can we learn from countries who have attempted to ease the stigma of drug use in order to allow a more open discussion geared towards healing?

In 2001, Portugal became the first country to implement a controversial new approach to combat widespread drug use and addiction: complete decriminalization of all illicit substances. Although seemingly counterintuitive, especially when the demonization of drug users tends to be the norm worldwide, this shift came at the heels of a massive opioid epidemic. In the 1980s, around 100,000 people, or 1% of the Portuguese population, had succumbed to heroin addiction, the HIV infection rate was the highest in the European Union, overdoses skyrocketed and crime rose to an unprecedented rate. This outcome was fueled by the aftermath of the revolution in 1974 when almost fifty years of military dictatorship gave way to a newfound democracy, opening borders and prompting a cultural power vacuum filled by new leadership and drug pushers alike.

Portugal was wholly unprepared for the illicit drugs brought back by soldiers who had been drafted to fight in their African colonies, as well as the new flood of cheap heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Previously a suppressed Catholic society without access to drug education, this influx was expedited into the hands of individuals hungry for new experience and ways of exercising their freedom. Like every other country faced with a drug epidemic, solutions were hard sought and seldom found. Launching an attack against the act of drug use itself proved futile and in 1997, a doctor specializing in addiction by the name of João Goulão was recruited to help create new drug strategies.

The Results?

“The number of new HIV diagnoses dropped dramatically – from 1,575 cases in 2000 to 78 cases in 2013,” drug overdose fatalities “dropped from about 80 in 2001 to just 16 in 2012”, and “the number of people arrested and sent to criminal courts for drug offenses annually declined by more than 60% following decriminalization,” among other successes.

So, how did Portugal accomplish what so many others haven’t? According to Goulão, “The national policy is to treat each individual differently.”  This holistic policy is based on three pillars: “one, that there’s no such thing as a soft or hard drug, only healthy and unhealthy relationships with drugs; two, that an individual’s unhealthy relationship with drugs often conceals frayed relationships with loved ones, with the world around them, and with themselves; and three, that the eradication of all drugs is an impossible goal.”

Instead, Portugal’s decriminalization has chosen to address drug use and possession with the healing hand of their public health system rather than the accusatory gavel of the justice system. This approach has opened the doors to expanding treatment and prevention options, such as the availability of sterile syringes and methadone treatment centers.

Of course, decriminalization is not the same as legalization. Dealing and trafficking drugs is still punishable with prison time. However, individuals caught with 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” are given a citation and an order to appear before commissions of “legal, social, and psychological experts,” also known as dissuasion panels. Many factors are taken into consideration for each individual, including their economic and social situation, level of drug dependency and circumstances surrounding their consumption. Most importantly, each individual is encouraged to take an active role in their own treatment plan, with the ability to choose their own therapist and level of confidentiality. The entire process is centered around treating the user with respect and eliminating both the stigma and shame that prevents drug users from seeking help.

Portugal’s methods are drastically different from the increasingly strengthened War on Drugs in the United States, where over half a million people die from prescribed, legal, and illicit drugs combined every year. The question is, if Portugal has been so successful in combating their own drug epidemic with these methods, why has the U.S. been so slow—even resistant—to follow suit?

It’s a simple question with a complex answer. Understanding current U.S. motivations behind domestic drug policy warrants taking a look at why it all started.

(To be continued…)

Image by Victoria Pickering

3 responses to “Portugal, U.S. and Mexico: Lessons from Drug Decriminalization”

  1. […] This is the second article of a two part series discussing drug decriminalization and its implications for Portugal, the United States and Mexico. Part One can be found here: https://prospectjournal.org/2018/06/15/portugal-u-s-and-mexico-lessons-from-drug-decriminalization/ […]


  2. […] Portugal. Seit der Entpönalisierung von Drogen sind in Portugal die drogenbedingten Todesfälle stärker zurückgegangen als in anderen Ländern, und die Heroinabhängigkeitsraten sind nicht gestiegen. Die HIV-Diagnosen gingen um 95% zurück […]


  3. […] and legalizing drugs, Portugal’s heroin use rates decreased. By 2013 HIV diagnosis dropped to only 5% of what they had been before new legislation came in, creating a massive savings in public health […]


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