The government in Portugal has no plans to back down. Although the Netherlands is the European country most associated with liberal drug laws, it has already been ten years since Portugal became the first European nation to take the brave step of decriminalizing possession of all drugs within its borders—from marijuana to heroin, and everything in between. This controversial move went into effect in June of 2001, in response to the country’s spiraling HIV/AIDS statistics. While many critics in the poor and largely conservative country attacked the sea change in drug policy, fearing it would lead to drug tourism while simultaneously worsening the country’s already shockingly high rate of hard drug use, a report published in 2009 by the Cato Institute tells a different story. Glenn Greenwald, the attorney and author who conducted the research, told Time: “Judging by every metric, drug decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success. It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country."
Back in 2001, Portugal had the highest rate of HIV among injecting drug users in the European Union—an incredible 2,000 new cases a year, in a country with a population of just 10 million. Despite the predictable controversy the move stirred up at home and abroad, the Portuguese government felt there was no other way they could effectively quell this ballooning problem. While here in the U.S. calls for full drug decriminalization are still dismissed as something of a fringe concern, the Portuguese decided to do it, and have been quietly getting on with it now for a decade. Surprisingly, most credible reports appear to show that decriminalization has been a staggering success.
The DEA sees it a bit differently. Portugal, they say, was a disaster, with heroin and HIV rates out of control. "Portugal's addict population and the problems that go along with addiction continue to increase," the DEA maintains. "In an effort to reduce the number of addicts in the prison system, the Portuguese government has an enacted some radical policies in the last few years with the eventual decriminalization of all illicit drugs in July of 2001."
However, as Greenwald concludes: "By freeing its citizens from the fear of prosecution and imprisonment for drug usage, Portugal has dramatically improved its ability to encourage drug addicts to avail themselves of treatment. The resources that were previously devoted to prosecuting and imprisoning drug addicts are now available to provide treatment programs to addicts." Under the perfect system, treatment would also be voluntary, but as an alternative to jail, mandatory treatment save money. But for now, "the majority of EU states have rates that are double and triple the rate for post-decriminalization Portugal," Greenwald says.
For those looking for clues about how the U.S. government can tackle its domestic drug problem, the figures are enticing. Following decriminalization, Portugal eventually found itself with the lowest rates of marijuana usage in people over 15 in the EU: about 10%. Compare this to the 40% of people over 12 who regularly smoke pot in the U.S., a country with some of the most punitive drugs laws in the developed world. Drug use of all kinds has declined in Portugal: Lifetime use among seventh to ninth graders fell from 14.01% to 10.6%. Lifetime heroin use among 16-18 year olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8%. And what about those horrific HIV infection rates that prompted the move in the first place? HIV infection rates among drug users fell by an incredible 17%, while drug related deaths were reduced by more than half. "There is no doubt that the phenomenon of addiction is in decline in Portugal," said Joao Goulao, President of the Institute of Drugs and Drugs Addiction, at a press conference to mark the 10th anniversary of the law.
We’re not holding our breath that the Portuguese example will lead to any kind of abrupt about-face in America's own drug war, which is still sputtering steadily along at a cost of trillions a year. However, with the medical marijuana movement so far refusing to be strangled out of existence by the DEA, Senators Jim Webb and Arlen Specter recently made a proposal to create a blue ribbon commission to look at prison and drug sentencing reform. And for any pro-legalization presidential hopefuls in 2012, the movement for a common sense drug policy in the United States may be finally moving into the mainstream.
The logical extension of this statement is that people who are not criminals should not be treated as criminals. They should not be arrested, put on trial or thrown in jail. The punishment for drug possession in Portugal prior to decriminalization was up to a year in prison.
The Portuguese experiment has been in action since Law 30/2000 went into effect nearly 12 years ago, and Goulão's staff is currently calculating how much money the country's judicial system has saved, in its courts and prisons, now that it no longer has to process individuals the police catch with a few grams of drugs.
"The police still search people for drugs," Goulão points out. Hashish, cocaine, ecstasy -- Portuguese police still seize and destroy all these substances.
Before doing so, though, they first weigh the drugs and consult the official table with the list of 10-day limits. Anyone possessing drugs in excess of these amounts is treated as a dealer and charged in court. Anyone with less than the limit is told to report to a body known as a "warning commission on drug addiction" within the next 72 hours.
The Second Time Brings Consequences
In Lisbon, for example, the local drug addiction commission is housed on the first floor of an unremarkable office building. The idea is that no one should feel uncomfortable about being seen here. A 19-year-old in a white polo shirt waits in one room. Police caught him over the weekend with about a gram of hashish. A social worker has already questioned him for half an hour and learned that he attended vocational training at an agricultural school, lives with his parents and smokes pot now and then. This was the first time he was caught in possession of drugs.
"Social user, no risk factors present," the social worker notes.
Next, a psychologist and a lawyer speak to the young man. They want to know if he's aware of the dangers of cannabis.
"Yeah, yeah, from school," he says. "We had a class on prevention."
As long as he isn't caught again within the next three months, his case will be closed. "We won't inform anyone that you were here and this won't go on your record," the lawyer explains. "But if it happens a second time, there are serious consequences."
But later, asked to explain these consequences in more detail, nothing comes to her mind that sounds particularly serious. A couple days of community service, perhaps. The commission can also impose fines, but the lawyer says it doesn't like to do so for teenagers. The fines are likewise not intended for people the commission determines to be addicts -- they're already paying to maintain their habit. "Our most important duty is to invite people to participate in rehab," she explains. Lisbon police send around 1,500 people to the commission each year, which averages out to less than five a day. Seventy percent of these cases concern marijuana. Those who fail to turn up receive a couple of reminders, but coercion is not an intended part of this system.
Decriminalization, Not Legalization
Warnings, reminders and invitations to rehab -- it seems Portugal's war on drugs is a gentle one. "Humanistic and pragmatic" is how João Goulão describes the new program. It is based on decriminalization, which should not be confused with legalization. Portugal considered that path too, but ultimately decided not to take things quite that far.
When Portugal's parliament was debating the proposed Law 30/2000, representatives of right-wing parties declared that planes would start arriving in the country daily, full of people looking for an easy opportunity to pump themselves full of drugs. Our entire country will become a drug-ridden slum, these parties said. The left-wing parties in parliament held a majority, though.
Goulão sits in his office and pages through charts, tables and graphs that are just some of the great quantity of data his team has collected over the years.
The data show, among other things, that the number of adults in Portugal who have at some point taken illegal drugs is rising. At the same time, though, the number of teenagers who have at some point taken illegal drugs is falling. The number of drug addicts who have undergone rehab has also increased dramatically, while the number of drug addicts who have become infected with HIV has fallen significantly. What, though, do these numbers mean? With what exactly can they be compared? There isn't a great deal of data from before the experiment began. And, for example, the number of adults who have tried illegal drugs at some point in their lives is increasing in most other countries throughout Europe as well.
Running Out of Money
"We haven't found some miracle cure," Goulão says. Still, taking stock after nearly 12 years, his conclusion is, "Decriminalization hasn't made the problem worse."
At the moment, Goulão's greatest concern is the Portuguese government's austerity policies in the wake of the euro crisis. Decriminalization is pointless, he says, without being accompanied by prevention programs, drug clinics and social work conducted directly on the streets. Before the euro crisis, Portugal spent €75 million ($98 million) annually on its anti-drug programs. So far, Goulão has only seen a couple million cut from his programs, but if the crisis in the country grows worse, at some point there may no longer be enough money.
It is simply by chance that the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has its headquarters in Lisbon. Frank Zobel works here, analyzing various approaches to combating drugs, and he says he can observe "the greatest innovation in this field" right outside his office door.
No drug policy, Zobel says, can genuinely prevent people from taking drugs -- at least, he is not familiar with any model that works this way. As for Portugal, Zobel says, "This is working. Drug consumption has not increased severely. There is no mass chaos. For me as an evaluator, that's a very good outcome."