Why are drugs legal in Portugal

15 years of decriminalized drug policy in Portugal

The policy based on prevention and education has been successful, drug consumption has fallen sharply in general, and particularly among young people

On July 1st, Portugal will celebrate the 15th anniversary of Law 30/2000 coming into force. At that time, consumption was completely decriminalized, and no distinction is made between so-called "hard drugs" such as heroin and "soft" drugs such as cannabis. Possession of drugs for personal consumption has not been a criminal offense for 15 years. In retrospect, the policy based on prevention and education has been very successful. Since decriminalization, drug use has fallen sharply in general, and particularly among young people.

Portugal proved to be right with its bold experiment 15 years ago against the alarmists at home and abroad as it became one of the most liberal countries in drug policy. In retrospect, the massive increase in drug use feared by critics and drug tourists who would flood the country and turn it into a drug paradise cannot be said in retrospect. In fact, the opposite is true.

The small country on the western edge of Europe was a pioneer and has opted for a different path than the "war on drugs", which is failing worldwide. Portugal, on the other hand, has reduced drug consumption with decriminalization and has also significantly reduced the consequences for consumers and society.

Contrary to what is sometimes wrongly assumed, drugs are still not legal in Portugal. That doesn't even apply to owning small quantities. However, owning small amounts for personal consumption is no longer considered a criminal offense. It is a simple administrative offense, such as wrong parking. Ten daily rations are considered limited consumption. The respective amount for this was precisely determined in the law. Anyone who has up to 25 grams of marijuana, up to two grams of cocaine, up to one gram of heroin or crystal, up to ten LSD and ecstasy pills will not face any penalty. Anyone caught with larger quantities is considered a dealer and will be punished accordingly under criminal law.

However, even if small amounts are discovered, the police will not stop at confiscating them. But instead of punishment, a central aspect of the new drug policy is used. Anyone who is caught with self-consumption has to go to one of the "Comissões para a Dissuasão da Toxicodependência" (CDT) for a violation of public order. These committees to combat drug addiction are formed by a lawyer, a social worker and a psychologist. The addictive behavior is then discussed with the consumer and the possible consequences are discussed.

The CDT can also impose fines if someone has to appear for the second time or oblige those affected to do social work. They can also issue a ban on spaces, but also provide support and offer therapies. Only around 1500 people currently appear in front of a CDT in the capital Lisbon each year, a low number. In more than two thirds of the cases, it is about the so-called soft consumption of cannabis.

Decriminalization, education and prevention

The linchpin of the measures taken by the fathers of liberal drug policy is not decriminalization, which alone would not be effective. For João Goulão, however, it is a prerequisite for an effective policy: "Anyone who takes drugs is not a criminal, but sick," says the former family doctor from Faro. Goulão played a leading role in the liberal law and has been head of the national anti-drug program (Sicad) in the capital Lisbon since 1997. As early as 1987, the doctor specialized in the treatment of drug addicts and later worked in a center for the treatment and reintegration of drug addicts in the capital before he was appointed director of Sicad.

He explains that decriminalization has made access to consumers much easier. It would have been much easier because their fear of the police had disappeared. "Today they come by themselves and have no problem giving their names," says Goulão. The drug problem became very serious in Portugal after the 1974 Carnation Revolution. It is believed that the urge for freedom after decades of dictatorship played an important role. Suddenly all the drugs that flooded Portugal at the time were available in large quantities.

There was hardly any dealing with it, and there were also no state programs for education and prevention. Soon the problem was perceived as the main problem in society. Since virtually "every family had a member or friend with an addiction problem" it was a key issue. That is why there was soon a broad, positive mood in favor of decriminalization, "which came from within society," explains Goulão. Although the overall consumption of drugs in Europe was below average back then, it was mainly hard drugs that were consumed in Portugal.

Carlos Poiares, for example, who has been a professor of forensic psychology at the University of Lisbon for decades, reports that 15 years ago it was "completely normal" to "see people on the street injecting themselves" . This could have been observed in other cities or in the country. And he also reports how the problem was dealt with before decriminalization: "Most of the time, these people also went to jail."

The fact that these images are practically no longer seen today and that the prisons are not overcrowded with drug addicts has been responsible for the state programs since 2001 that went along with the decriminalization. Awareness campaigns have been launched in schools, colleges and on television, while social work has been stepped up in problem areas. Therapy offers were improved just as substitution programs for addicts were introduced.

Decline in drug use

The effect can also be easily illustrated using numbers. One factor is that drug addicts' drug-related crime has fallen sharply. In addition, the police can now concentrate on the organized drug trafficker when investigating drugs. According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction t (EMCDDA) in the European Drugs Report 2015, more heroin and cocaine were seized in Portugal than in Germany in relation to size. Cocaine stands out in particular, where the small country, at 2.4 tons, withdrew a higher total than in Germany. And that happened in just 792 operations. In Germany only 1.3 tons were seized in 2622 cases. So it hits the big fish more in Portugal.

About 100,000 heroin addicts are said to have existed at the height of the "heroin plague" in the country, which was about 1% of the total population. Today their number has been reduced to less than a third. And the vast majority of these addicts are in state programs. The number of drug deaths in Portugal has also fallen by more than 75% since 2001. The country had the highest number of drug-related AIDS deaths in the EU until 1999. In 2007, around 20 percent of new HIV diagnoses were registered in connection with drugs, in 2014 it was 4%.

The situation is similar with other serious diseases that can be transmitted by exchanging syringes, such as hepatitis, since syringes are distributed and do not have to be used several times as before. The European Drugs Report 2015 therefore also states that in Portugal, "where phases with high infection rates had occurred in the past, the trend in reported new diagnoses continues to decline". As the "Transform Drug Policy Foundation" shows, a downward trend in drug use can be observed at all levels in Portugal. The number of people who have used drugs at least once in their life, once in the past year and once in the past month has decreased significantly. The number of the group of 15-24 year-olds, who are considered to be particularly at risk from drugs, has fallen even more significantly since 2001. The number of those who have taken drugs and are using them continuously has decreased from 45% in 2001 to 28%.

It was noticeable that, with the severe economic crisis in the country, the drug problem also intensified. Both the number of relapsed heroin addicts has increased significantly at times and the number of drug deaths also increased again from 2007 onwards. Many relapses had their roots in the ongoing financial misery, said the Sicad boss. But Goulão also assumed that part of the increase is due to improved statistical recording. Ultimately, however, drug addiction is an outlet for suffering. Anyone who is frustrated by the high unemployment and massive difficulties in the country is susceptible to falling back into old patterns. However, the increase probably also had to do with the fact that the conservatives who ruled from 2011 to 2015, with their austerity policy, also widened the gap in prevention and education programs.

The critics of yore have now practically fallen silent. The criticism now comes from the other direction. Because the legislation has not developed further in the past 15 years. One reason for this is also the economic and financial crisis, which, for example, still does not allow any protected rooms for consumers or accompanying drug use. This would open up new opportunities to combat addiction and its consequences. The left-wing government, which under the Socialists have been ruling the country again since last autumn and rejected the austerity policy of its predecessors (there is no alternative to austerity in Portugal), could now follow up. It could take the politics that it successfully started in 2001 to a new level. (Ralf Streck)

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