On July 1, 2001 Portugal’s government introduced liberal decriminalization policies relating to drug offenses. Decriminalization laws apply to the purchase, possession and consumption of all drugs for personal use, which is defined as the quantity sufficient for 10 days usage for one person. Criminal penalties for all drugs were removed, with the exception of drug trafficking offenses.
Drug possession and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited in Portugal, but violations of those prohibitions are deemed to be administrative violations. This removes them from the criminal justice system completely. Interestingly, there has not been a distinction between types of drugs or whether consumption must be limited to a persons private home. Use of heroin, marijuana, MDMA, cocaine, psychedelic mushrooms, methamphetamine are all decriminalized no matter where the offense occurs or for what purpose.
The outcomes of these liberal, progressive policies has been significant. Drug usage rates have declined substantially since 2001. For almost every narcotic, the lifetime prevalence rate—the percentage of adults who will use a particular drug over the course of their lifetime—is far lower in Portugal than in Europe generally. Cannabis use, which is the most prevalent drug worldwide, has usage rates lower than every other European Union member state. Cocaine use, the second most prevalent drug in Europe, is very low with usage rates double or higher in most other European Union states.
A key element to the decriminalization strategy has been the implementation of harm minimization policies which include prevention services and needle exchange programs. The government has funded programs such as safe injection spaces and provided clean needle kits. These kits include a new clean needle, condom, alcohol wipes and a message about AIDS and prevention plus treatment options.
The outcomes of these policies have been significant. The number of newly reported cases of HIV and AIDS among drug addicts has substantially declined every year since 2001 and a decrease of infection rates for Hepatitis B and C has also been seen. The number of individuals in substitution treatment programs such a Methadone have increased 147 percent between 1999 and 2003. Increases have also been seen in detoxification programs, therapeutic communities and half-way houses.
Under the decriminalization strategy, if a person is caught by the police with possession of a drug, they are sent to a dissuasion commission. The dissuasion commission is an administrative body that is made up of 3 people–they may be a psychiatrists, health worker, social worker or judge. The panel reviews the offense and recommends action for the addict or user based on the specifics of the case. They may encourage addicts to enter treatment and to deter recreational users from continuing drug taking. The commission can issue fines, impose community work or approve therapy programs. But they cannot and do not make a person go to jail as punishment for their drug use.
Prior to 2001, Portugal had very high rates of HIV and AIDS largely due to intravenous drug use. They were the highest rating country in the European Union with over 2,000 new cases reported every year. Drug abuse was considered an uncontrollable social problem that drained government resources due to criminalization policies. It was this criminalization of drug abuse that was seen as the problem, not drug abuse itself.
Due to the rapidly rising drug problem in the 1990’s, the Portuguese Government initiated the new strategy as a way to reduce drug use and abuse. They believed that the criminalization of drug abuse was exacerbating problems in their country. The strategy focused on redirecting criminalization of drug use and abuse funds and resources to primary prevention, harm minimization and health care networks.
Prior to the introduction of decriminalization policies, addicts did not seek out health services or treatment for fear of prosecution. Officials believed that by lifting the fears of prosecution, the uptake of treatment would increase. Their prediction was true and a significant increase in drug treatment programs has been seen along with a drop in infection rates.
Despite initial fears by politicians, community groups and residents of Portugal, none of the predicted horror stories have come true. Fears of rampant drug use, an increase of drug tourists, overdoses, and increasing addiction rates or disease rates have failed to develop. Statistics have revealed that there has been no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal. In some categories, drug usage rates are now the lowest in the European Union.
Interestingly there is a lack of debate about the re-criminalization of drugs. The major political parties do not see that there is a need to re-introduce criminal penalties, increase incarceration rates or even make significant changes to the existing policies. The main debates around the issue focus on bureaucratic changes to the policy or the dissuasion commission.
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