What Makes Portugal’s Drug Policy Work

Portugal decriminalised the possession of all drugs for personal use in 2001, and although this may be an alarming thought for some - it’s working.

Portugal's drug policy

From the late ’80s until the early 2000’s Portugal was battling a health crisis among its citizens. HIV rates were high due to drug-related consumption. HIV rates were rising rapidly and this negatively impacted an otherwise good period for the country.

Many countries have done their best to curb drug consumption throughout history. A war on drugs essay summarises the means countries have gone to in order to try to curb drug consumption. Portugal’s story is particularly interesting when looking at the success their policy has had. 

The Portuguese government drafted a drug policy to try to limit the rate of substance use, but many believed this would do more damage than it would bring positive change. Now, 20 years later and the drug issues faced by the country are not what they once were. But what makes this policy work so well? 

Causes of High Infection Rates 

Portugal was still recovering from the implications of their previous authoritative government when heroin was introduced to the country. Antonio Salzar’s had seen Portugal split from the rest of the world and resulted in dwindling literacy rates. Education was subdued for as a means of keeping the population at bay, preventing them from thinking for themselves. 

After their successful military coup and the authoritative government was overthrown, Portugal was rapidly re-introduced to the rest of the world and saw outside influences. Licenses relaxed and imported goods became more common – but unfortunately so, so did heroin. The drug began to run rampant throughout the country and played a massive part in the rapidly rising HIV rates due to needle sharing. 

Portugal’s Drug Policy 

Portugal’s drug policy was drafted in 2000, but put into action in July 2001. This policy decriminalised personal possession of all illicit substances. If a Portuguese citizen was found with an illicit drug, one of the following would happen: 

  • They would receive a warning; 
  • Received a fine; or
  • They were directed to seek professional advice from the local commission 

The local commission ranges from lawyers, to social workers to doctors. Their purpose would be to assist the offender with information related to treatment and harm reduction. They would also assist with finding available support services as required. 

Why it Works 

Economists believe that law reform is to thank for their success in battling drug abuse. However, looking closer you realise that it is much more than this. 

Cultural Reform 

The public view of drug users has changed from the demonised notion to that of care and empathy. Society became more aware of the issues faced by those with addiction disorders thanks to awareness programs. Knowledge proved to be critical for society to understand how to help these people when they need it. 

Health Sector Funding

The Portuguese government increased health sector funding to support its policy. Improvement of social and reintegration programs helped those struggling with addiction to substances. With special attention to prevention, treatment and harm reduction initiatives – you can begin to understand how they managed such a sharp decline in health issues related to substance abuse. 

In the years prior, public and private health services struggled to keep up with the law and giving their patients the help they required. The new drug policy removed these constraints, which allowed medical professionals to give people the attention they needed, improving the wellbeing of society as a whole. With proper government intervention, resources and expertise, people with addiction disorders finally obtained professional help. 

Improved Standards of Living  

While the drug decriminalisation policy was put into action, the Portuguese government also introduced a new package to its people – the Portuguese wellness state. This action was vital in achieving their success as citizens now had the right to minimum income and an improved standard of living. 

Economic Climate Since Drug Policy Implementation 

What impact has the drug policy had on society and the economy? Here are some touch points: 

  • Decreased drug consumption by teens and young adults (these groups are most susceptible to drug abuse). 
  • Decreased drug consumption amongst the general population (drug consumption decreased dramatically, and is now significantly lower than the European average). 
  • Reduced HIV infection rates among drug users (the figure was at 56 in 2012 but alarmingly sat at 1016 in 2001). 
  • Lower rates of drug-related deaths (Deaths from direct drug use steadied at 16 in 2012, while at 80 units in 2001). 
  • Less drug-related crime and reduced prison population (in 2000, crime numbers were up to 14 000, but now ranges between 56000-6000. The prison population decreased from 44% in 1999 to 12% in 2012). 

In the End 

Many criticised Portugal’s drug policy at the time, believing it would bring increase substance use and more – but 20 years later we see this has not been the case. Portugal isn’t the only country with this kind of policy but have certainly been the most successful. This success lies not just in reform, but creating awareness, an improved health sector, social reform, higher standards of living and a society that is willing to give drug consumers a chance when they need it. 

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