Leading Example: Drug Laws in Portugal

The Magic Pier (Portugal) by Nelson L. (Creative Commons)

The Magic Pier (Portugal) by Nelson L. (Creative Commons)

The following article, written by Ivo Aleixo, first appeared in the Psychedelic Press UK Journal (2014 Vol.1 – January).


Heroin, cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, crack, LSD, you name it, you may go ahead and pick your poison and you won’t be thrown in jail. Absurd as it might first sound, this is an experiment that Portugal has been running for over a decade. Since 2001, all drugs have been decriminalised i.e. drug use is no longer considered a criminal offence for which the state can imprison you. You might be surprised that such a relaxed attitude towards drugs comes from a conservative Catholic nation of ten million like Portugal, so before I go any further into the policies of the country of my birth, a light-speed rundown of its most important game-rules about drugs:

  • The official government stance and the keyword is decriminalisation, which is not the benevolent twin of criminalisation but a hazily defined halfway measure.
  • The state, from this in-between viewpoint, still does not afford its citizens the legal right to use and sell drugs.
  • As for possessing drugs, criminal penalties apply only if you go over a certain threshold, which the state sees as an intention to sell, thus illegal e.g. 25 grams of marijuana.
  • If you fall under the limbo bar -– which is set depending on the drug – you will be subjected to a fine and/or psychological counselling, the aim of which is to evaluate whether you qualify as an addict and in need for a rehab.
  • Drug abuse is considered a health issue, not a criminal one.

It certainly is refreshing that the Portuguese Drug War strategy has been to stop prosecuting users. The paradox being that in most cases the laws end up causing more harm than the drugs they are trying to protect society from. But did Portugal wake up to the fact that the idea of a drug-free society is an impossibility, believable only if you are asleep? Is this drug policy experiment a tacit recognition that the appetite for intoxication and altered states of consciousness – be it with alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, MDMA, or psychedelics – is all too human, and not worth the law enforcement hassle?

It might be all of the above at once, or none at all. It is up for grabs and interpretation why such a relaxed approach was adopted twelve years ago, and every consequent government – including the conservative coalition that currently is in power – has not even tried to roll back the clock to a time when using drugs was a criminal offence.

Portugal’s drug reform didn’t so much arise from the realisation that chasing drug users was not worth the hassle, but more from the fact that the abuse and addiction to heroin became too much of a hassle to be ignored. The height of the epidemic is recognised to be the mid-1990s, and the agreed upon figure of severely drug-addicted people tops the 100 000 mark. HIV-related infections skyrocketed, while pockets of suburban drug slums started encircling cities like Lisbon and Porto.

My image of all this has been constructed via the storytelling of family and friends and people who, unlike me, were not infants at the time. Today, driving to or from Lisbon you can still make a small detour and witness whatever is left of those days, which is not much. It is still painstakingly obvious what goes on those streets and what the people who roam them are looking for. My Dad is always quick to remind me that it is nothing compared to what it was. And what it was – a growing club of ostracised bothersome junkies in need of help – paved the way to the current understanding of the Portuguese government in regards to drugs: that drug users are not criminals, but sick. This straightforward realisation that drug abuse is a health issue and not a criminal one is perhaps the most important point to unpack and interpret critically, because it is the foundation of the Portuguese government’s thought-process towards drug use and abuse.

When the drug reform was being discussed, its opponents were quick to prophesise that Portugal would become a destination for drug tourism, and that the suburban drug slums would metastasise and swallow the whole country. Now the opposition is in power and remains silent about following its own scare-tactics. Twelve years into the experiment, the data shows that it is working in reducing the number of addicts. The numbers of drug addicts undergoing rehab have increased drastically while the HIV-infections went the other way, which was the whole point in switching from interpreting drug use and abuse as health issue instead of a criminally. By not chasing after drug users as if they are criminals, the state has alleviated some part of the stigma attached to drug use and abuse. And the difference between being sent to rehab or to jail because of using drugs should be as clear as the difference between a helping hand and a swinging fist.

However, Portugal does not inhabit some far away moral galaxy when it comes to drugs. In fact, like so many others of the Catholic psyche, the subject is still very much taboo, and no attempts have been made in distinguishing between the available drugs on the menu and its effects. So we come to a problem of language, through which the contradictions and cognitive dissonance of the Portuguese government towards drugs are revealed.

Just a few months ago the government shut down all smart-shops that had mushroomed in the country over the last decade. From last May onwards, the consumption and selling of legal highs is illegal in the same country where using cocaine and heroin is not a criminal offence. And though petitions keep being signed to legalise and regulate cannabis and proposals do reach parliament every year, so far all attempts have died an ugly death and have been eulogised by its opponents in a condescending tones of please do not be silly because we have more important things to discuss. There are no coffee-shops or medical marijuana dispensaries in sight to replace the vacuum of the legal high ban.

After weighing all the positives harvested from its drug laws, the Portuguese government is still to take the next logical step, and instead sends its population mix-signals about what it thinks about drugs. It might seem that I am trying hard to spot something to complain about, instead of recognising the benefits of no longer having the eye of the law seeing drug users as criminals. But the case can be made, and let me make it myself, however naively it is perceived, that a country in deep economic turmoil for the past five years really has more to profit than to lose if it decides to take control and provide a well-regulated market like Amsterdam and some states in the US have done. It would take the drug-market out of the streets and into well-regulated and taxable establishments.

In a twisted version of the butterfly effect, by tracing the journey of a drug like cocaine from a Colombian farm to the clubs and noses of London, Berlin and NYC, you will be forced to confront the fact that it comes with a body count and heavy social consequences. In its pursuit of an unwinnable Drug War, America has turned into the biggest jailer in the world, while the real bloodletting and chaos is experienced south of the border with neighbouring Mexico counting over 60 000 deaths related to drug violence in the last decade alone.

As global support grows for a controlled legalisation of drugs, and calls for a rethink of the current approach to drug policy, Portugal’s experiment with drug decriminalisation can offer some food-for-thought. For some, decriminalisation still sounds like an invitation for more drug use and addiction. Portugal’s experiment has shown otherwise. But, as importantly, abandoning the bad idea of prohibition could prove a very effective tool in disrupting the current supply chain in the hands of violent cartels and mobsters. The current system operates within a black-market, one in which the profit margins have side-effects of horrific violence and murder, extortion, and the most blood-soaked etceteras you can image. Prohibitionist policies have turned certain substances, no matter how dangerous, into the world’s most lucrative, violent black markets that end up causing more harm than the drugs ever could.

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