Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies

On July 1, 2001, a nationwide law in Portugal took effect that decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Under the new legal framework, all drugs were “decriminalized,” not “legalized.” Thus, drug possession for personal use and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited, but violations of those prohibitions are deemed to be exclusively administrative violations and are removed completely from the criminal realm. Drug trafficking continues to be prosecuted as a criminal offense.

While other states in the European Union have developed various forms of de facto decriminalization — whereby substances perceived to be less serious (such as cannabis) rarely lead to criminal prosecution — Portugal remains the only EU member state with a law explicitly declaring drugs to be “decriminalized.” Because more than seven years have now elapsed since enactment of Portugal’s decriminalization system, there are ample data enabling its effects to be assessed.

Notably, decriminalization has become increasingly popular in Portugal since 2001. Except for some far‐​right politicians, very few domestic political factions are agitating for a repeal of the 2001 law. And while there is a widespread perception that bureaucratic changes need to be made to Portugal’s decriminalization framework to make it more efficient and effective, there is no real debate about whether drugs should once again be criminalized. More significantly, none of the nightmare scenarios touted by preenactment decriminalization opponents — from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for “drug tourists” — has occurred.

The political consensus in favor of decriminalization is unsurprising in light of the relevant empirical data. Those data indicate that decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal, which, in numerous categories, are now among the lowest in the EU, particularly when compared with states with stringent criminalization regimes. Although postdecriminalization usage rates have remained roughly the same or even decreased slightly when compared with other EU states, drug‐​related pathologies — such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage — have decreased dramatically. Drug policy experts attribute those positive trends to the enhanced ability of the Portuguese government to offer treatment programs to its citizens — enhancements made possible, for numerous reasons, by decriminalization.

This report will begin with an examination of the Portuguese decriminalization framework as set forth in law and in terms of how it functions in practice. Also examined is the political climate in Portugal both pre‐ and post‐​decriminalization with regard to drug policy, and the impetus that led that nation to adopt decriminalization.

The report then assesses Portuguese drug policy in the context of the EU’s approach to drugs. The varying legal frameworks, as well as the overall trend toward liberalization, are examined to enable a meaningful comparative assessment between Portuguese data and data from other EU states.

The report also sets forth the data concerning drug‐​related trends in Portugal both pre‐ and post‐​decriminalization. The effects of decriminalization in Portugal are examined both in absolute terms and in comparisons with other states that continue to criminalize drugs, particularly within the EU.

The data show that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success. Within this success lie self‐​evident lessons that should guide drug policy debates around the world.

Read the rest of the report.

Media Name: drugdec.jpg

Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America

The domestic phase of Washington’s war on drugs has received considerable criticism over the years from Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley, Kurt Schmoke, and other luminaries who have catalogued its destructive effects on American society. More recent converts such as New Mexico governor Gary Johnson have proclaimed the same. Until recently, however, most critics have not stressed the damage that the international phase of the drug war has done to our Latin American neighbors. That lack of attention has begun to change, and some disenchantment with the hemispheric drug war has been heard.

Some prominent Latin American political leaders have dared to criticize Washington’s actions and even hint that the option of legalization should be considered. At the same time, the U.S. government seems determined to perpetuate, even escalate, the antidrug crusade. The $1.3 billion military aid package to Colombia approved by Congress in the summer of 2000 confirms that the international phase of the campaign against drugs still has powerful support in Washington.

Spending on federal antidrug measures also continues to increase, and both the domestic and international tactics employed by the government in the name of an uncompromisingly drug‐​free society bring the inflammatory metaphor of war closer to reality. Ending the prohibitionist system would produce numerous benefits for the United States and Latin America alike. In this hard‐​hitting book, Ted Galen Carpenter takes a broad view of the fiasco that is Washington’s drug war and provides a candid portrait of the situation in Latin America. Bad Neighbor Policy is a must‐​read for anyone interested in the real story behind our relationship with the countries south of our border.

Published by Palgrave, Macmillan.

Press Release: Bad Neighbor Policy

Media Name: badneighbor.jpg