Want Drug Policies That Actually Work? Look at Portugal

Article @ Novara, published 10 December 2021

This week the government launched a ten-year strategy “to combat illegal drug use”. While allocating a much-needed £780m fund for drug treatment and recovery, it also announced a string of reactionary measures including £300m for the further policing and punishment of both dealers and users. Sanctions will include bigger fines, the loss of personal identification documents, and ultimately incarceration. The new plan will also further increase police use of stop and search powers, which have long been used to target and harass Black and minority ethnic people.I grew up in Portugal in the 1990s and witnessed first-hand how a change in political will was able to curb the country’s drug problem. To solve it, all it took was looking at drug addiction as a health rather than a moral crisis.

Portugal’s drug experiment.

When I was little, my grandmother used to tell me to avert my eyes from a certain café we walked past on our way to church. “That’s where the drug addicts are”, she would say – and the words filled me with terror. Portugal in the 1990s seemed irretrievably plagued with ‘drug addicts’. In the collective Portuguese imagination, they populated our cafés, jumped out of the dark asking to park our cars in return for money, broke into our homes for everything but the kitchen sink, and collapsed stupefied in our parks and public squares. The news was filled with stories of citizens robbed at ‘syringe-point’, or threatened with AIDS or hepatitis by delinquents looking to turn our hard-earned cash into another hit. The Boogey Man of my childhood was a drug addict.

The truth, of course, was that the café my grandmother warned me about was merely a cheap place where young adults congregated for a beer at the end of the day. But by the last 1990s, there were around 130,000 people consuming heroin and other hard drugs in Portugal. In a country of just over 10 million, that number is more than a little scary. Portugal had a severe problem on its hands.

In 2001, however, the Portuguese government brought in an extensive programme to tackle the crisis. This included significant investment in drug treatment and healthcare infrastructure, but also, notably, the decriminalisation of all drugs. Since then, anyone caught acquiring, consuming or in possession of an illicit substance, within the thresholds defined in law for personal use, now faces a ‘dissuasion programme’ instead of a criminal record. The programme works by referring individuals to their local ‘Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction’ – a panel made up of health, social care and legal professionals, the primary aim of which is to educate users on the dangers of drug consumption. Repeat offenders might be liable to pay a fine or do community service. Problematic cases are often further referred to counselling and treatment facilities.