Saturday, April 04, 2009

Portugal: a Model for National Drug Policy?

Facts can be inconvenient things.

Take the recent report on the effects of drug decriminalisation in Portugal by Glenn Greenwald of the Cato Institute, for instance.

The reality is, as explained in the report, that the policy line taken by Portugal in 2001 - to totally decriminalise all drugs - has neither resulted in Lisbon becoming a centre for drug tourism nor in rises in drug use.

The report, in fact, shows that in many significant ways, drug use has decreased, especially in the socially significant 13-18 year-old age groups.

Before getting too excited (or angry) about this, it is worth clarifying what actually took place in Portuguese law in 2001:
  • The possession and personal use of drugs remained illegal but was decriminalised. This means that the action was treated as an administrative issue and had no criminal implications or penalties attached to it
  • The emphasis of social policy shifted from a punitive approach to one of public health , with much greater emphasis placed on users seeking access to treatment programmes, without the fear of arrest or the stigma of receiving a criminal record
  • this approach is different from that of "de-penalisation" in which the act of using or possessing drugs remains criminal but is rarely punished in practice (an approach taken in part by several EU states especially around cannabis use)
  • drug trafficking (defined in Portugeuse law as "possession of more than the average dose for ten days of use") remains a criminal offence in Portugal, punishable by custodial sentences.

The report emphasises that the change in the law in 2001 was aimed strongly at reducing drug use nationally. The evidence after eight years is that the policy is having an effect. The report makes compelling reading and suggests a possible way forward in the issue of public policy on drug misuse.

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