Portugal: Putting Down the Weapons in the War on Drugs

Drug abuse solutions in Portugal have shifted from blame to accountability making them the new model for recovery. Thirteen years ago they responded with the big guns in attempting to quell the country’s drug epidemic by doing what most countries are afraid to do: shifting the responsibility for reducing the demand for drugs and coping with dependency issues from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Health.

This is a definite acknowledgment and call-to-action in response to the controversial debate about whether addiction is a disease or a character flaw.

Portugal, once the European country having some of the highest levels of hard drug use, rejected the antiquated “War on Drugs,” and replaced it with a recovery-based approach in which drug use and personal possession (including marijuana, heroine, cocaine and methamphetamines) is decriminalized and addicts are presented with options for treatment.

Persons who have been found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are given the choice to reduce jail time with the proposal of therapy. Jail, while a form of punishment is also a tool to remove dangerous persons from society. Because many people are erroneously imprisoned for possession of insignificant amounts of drugs, there are countless arguments against removing them from society: potential damage to their psyches and the financial burden it places on governments. Incarceration has become ineffective and counterproductive in returning useful members of society back to their communities. Portugal’s new plan of action addresses the need to rehabilitate the root of the problem as opposed to punishing the behavior. People guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are presented to a board made up of a psychologist, social worker, and legal adviser to suggest appropriate treatment (which the addict may refuse without criminal punishment) instead of jail.

Critics in the poor, socially conservative and largely Catholic nation complained that decriminalizing drug possession would open the country to drug tourists and exacerbate Portugal’s drug problem. It didn’t happen.

The Cato Institute (a public policy research organization dedicated to the principles of individual liberty) commissioned a report in April 2011 and the results suggest otherwise:

  • Illegal drug use among teens has declined, rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped and the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized.
  • Portugal has the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the EU: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%; Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.
  • Between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%. Drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-18 year olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8%. 


New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003.
  • Death related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half.
  • The number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and the considerable money saved on enforcement allowed for increase funding of drug free treatment as well.
  • Property theft has dropped dramatically (50% – 80% of all property theft worldwide is caused by drug users).
  • Portugal’s government is better able to manage and control the problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.

Portugal is demonstrating to the rest of the world that the War on Drugs has been ineffective and is based on spreading fear through conjecture. The country has defused the booby trap of a penal mentality and is utilizing their firsthand proof that health and treatment in place of prison cure problematic drug use. Adverse drug policies and criminal retribution have done more damage across the world. Don’t you think it’s time for the U.S.A. to wave the white flag and surrender to a medical resolution?

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