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

NCJ Number
Glenn Greenwald
Date Published
34 pages
This report explains the provisions of Portugal’s law that decriminalizes all drugs, assesses Portugal’s drug policy in the context of the European Union’s (EU’s) approach to drugs, and presents data on drug-related trends in Portugal before and after decriminalization.
On July 1, 2001, Portugal enacted a nationwide law that decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Under this law, all drugs are “decriminalized,” not “legalized,” which means that drug possession for personal use and drug use itself are still legally prohibited, but violations of these prohibitions are administrative violations and not subject to criminal prosecution. Drug trafficking, on the other hand, continues to be prosecuted as a criminal offense. Although other countries in the European Union have developed various forms of de facto decriminalization, whereby drugs believed to be less serious (such as cannabis) rarely lead to criminal prosecution, Portugal is the only EU member state with a law explicitly excluding from criminal prosecution the possession of all drugs for personal use and drug use itself. Data collected before and after decriminalization indicate that it has not led to an increase in drug-use rates in the country, which are now among the lowest in the European Union in numerous categories, particularly compared to countries with stringent criminalization regimes. Post-decriminalization drug-use rates have remained approximately the same or have declined slightly compared with other EU member states. There has been an even more dramatic decrease in drug-related pathologies, such as the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug use. Drug-policy experts have attributed these positive trends to the enhanced ability of the Portuguese Government to provide substance abuse treatment programs under an administrative rather than a criminal justice framework for responding to drug use/abuse. Portugal’s lessons should guide drug policy debates around the world. 19 figures, 3 tables, and 87 notes