Whenever drug policy is discussed you can guarantee Portugal will get a mention. There has been a lot of confusion about the changes made to Portugal’s drug laws since they were adopted a decade and a half ago. Many people believe drugs are legal in Portugal, regulated by the government, even taxed, and this is said to have had a range of great health benefits for the country, stopping overdoses, lowering the rate of HIV infections and reducing drug use overall. The reality of the policy in action is not simple, so we thought we’d clear up a few of the misconceptions.
So is weed really legal in Portugal?
No, its not. In 2001, the Portuguese government introduced a new policy which decriminalised the possession and personal use of any drug if the amount was no more than a ten-day supply for one person. This includes cannabis, cocaine, heroin, MDMA/ecstasy, amphetamines and methamphetamines.
Decriminalised? Doesn’t that mean the government is saying it’s ok to use drugs?
No, decriminalised just means Portugal’s drug law has moved possession from a criminal offence, where you could land in prison, to an administrative offence, kind of like the system currently operating in ACT, Western Australia and the Northern Territory (for more info about decriminalisation in Australia, click here.)
It’s still against the law to possess or use drugs in Portugal, however the punishments aren’t as severe as they used to be. Criminal penalties still apply to people caught growing, trafficking and dealing drugs, including cannabis.
So what happens in Portugal if you are caught with drugs?
Anyone caught with an amount equal to a 10-day supply or less will find themselves in front of the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction. This is made up of a medical professional, a lawyer and a social worker, who together decide if the person needs treatment, should pay a small fine or will receive no penalty at all.
What was the purpose of decriminalising drug use?
Following huge political shifts during the 1970s, Portuguese society began to experience problems with drug addiction. This evolved into a widespread crisis, particularly with street drug markets of heroin, so the government introduced a set of harsh penalties in an attempt to stop the problem worsening.
Drug addiction and health issues associated with drug-use (like HIV infections) remained quite high years later, so the Portuguese government decided to take a different approach. Along with decriminalising the possession and use of drugs in 2001, the country devoted large amounts of resources to harm reduction programs, public health campaigns and addiction treatment services.
Has decriminalisation in Portugal worked?
While many people have claimed Portugal s decision to decriminalise drug use has resulted in a huge decline in overdoses and a range of positive health outcomes for the population, unfortunately it s not that straightforward.
Attributing the decline in HIV infection rates and drug-related health issues solely to decriminalisation is taking a very narrow view. Increased investment in harm reduction and public health campaigns, as well as targeted prevention projects for vulnerable groups (much like the work done here at NCPIC) are far more likely to have played a larger role in improving health outcomes and lowering addiction rates in Portugal. Interestingly, drug policy has much less influence on community levels of drug use, whether considered harsh or lenient.
As we’ve said before, no single country has developed the perfect drug policy but it’s always worth taking a look at different ways in which governments continue to approach the issue.
Fifteen years on, one of the biggest lessons we can take from the Portuguese model is that increasing investment in harm reduction, prevention and treatment programs can have a positive impact on a population.