The Atlantic southern nation is known for many things like food, beaches, and nice weather. But in the last decades, it has also been the epicenter of some interesting policies about drug use. Their approach is considered very liberal and for many, very smart and encouraging, and that’s the reason why many see it as an example to follow. In this small article, I’d like to present to you what happened in Portugal and why the government at the beginning of the century decided to completely change its policies.
Portugal met democracy after 1974, when the dictatorship ended. The new generation post-dictatorship saw for the first time a new world. A world that was free and full of new wonders.
The country had to change, and young generations tried to adapt to this new world. The 80’s and the 90’s brought progress. With it also came other things that made these into dark decades in Portuguese history.
It is said that every family had at least one member connected with drug issues. By the end of the 1990’s Portugal was one of the top EU member states with more drug induced AIDS rate, with more HIV diagnoses among drug users, as well rising deaths as results of overdose and other drug induced illnesses.
Focus on the individual
The Portuguese government decided to make a change and changed the country’s drugs policy completely. The main change was related with the sanctions as they became civil sanctions instead of criminal sanctions.
A drug user would be presented to the so-called Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction instead of a national court. This commission has the role to help people, proposing rehabilitation and trying to make in possible for the person to be integrated back into society. This is the main idea of this system. It is still very young and with many flaws.
Another important measure taken by the government was the complete decriminalization of possession of smaller qualities of drugs, as they can be used for personal issues. Selling is still completely illegal, as it is considered trafficking or dealing. In fact, people caught with more than the legally allowed quantity can be charged of trafficking or dealing.
“What I’ve seen here is that Portugal’s drug policy encourages humanism and pragmatism with a focus on the individual.” – Denise Cullen, Executive Director, Broken No More.
Drug policies in Europe
These kinds of policies are not unique in the world. Around 30 countries have decided to decriminalize some drugs. European countries like Spain, Italy, Czech Republic, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, Croatia, Russia, Switzerland, Armenia, and Estonia, have decided to decriminalize some types of drugs, although using very different systems.
For example, in Italy and Spain it’s legal to consume some types of drugs in private holdings, but in public spaces is illegal. This does not happen in Portugal or Czech Republic, where consuming in public places is legal.
The legal answer to some cases can differ from country to country. Every nation tries to solve their problems in different ways. For example, in Finland and Denmark where drugs are not decriminalized, the resources used for harm reduction (for example: needle exchange schemes, supervised drug consumption rooms, opioid agonist, therapy) have been increasing in the past years. So, even if drugs are still illegal, it is seen as a problem of society and a problem on which the state can help and not just sanction.
Policies can save lives
This theme is very vast and debatable. It is very hard to have a linear opinion, since also the results are not clear. Following the example of Portugal, it is known that since the implementation of these policies there was a reduction of overdose, HIV cases and other illnesses related to misuse of drugs. There was a positive impact on public health in general, but Portugal is still one of the countries in Europe with the highest consumption rate, with equal values to Finland. Or Estonia that still has one of the highest rates of HIV and other illnesses related with misuse of drugs.
But the biggest difference between countries that discriminated drugs and the ones that haven’t, is the way that human beings are treated and how they are helped.
Policies can save lives, and that’s the reason why Portugal has one of the lowest rates of deaths due to misuse of drugs. It is easier to help people when they are not seen as criminals, but as human beings. As patients that need help. So, the best solution for this problem equals better treatment and above all changing attitudes. By the governments, but also by society itself.
Release UK, TalkingDrugs, https://www.talkingdrugs.org/drug-decriminalisation
TLDR News, https://youtu.be/sYVctc-87b8
Observatório Europeu da Droga e da Toxicodependência, Relatório Europeu sobre Drogas 2019.
Drug Policy Alliance, Drug Decriminalization in Portugal Learning from a Health and Human-Centered Approach, 2018, https://drugpolicy.org/resource/drug-decriminalization-portugal-learning-health-and-human-centered-approach