The nation is grappling with emerging challenges two decades after Portugal revolutionized its approach to drug policy, pioneering a decriminalization model that inspired similar efforts globally.
Though the Portuguese model reduced HIV transmission rates, overdose deaths, and prison populations, urban centers like Porto now witness an alarming resurgence of visible drug use and related criminal activity.
Changes in Portugal’s Drug Law
Here are the fundamental facts to know about Portugal’s decriminalization laws:
- Portugal decriminalized personal use and possession of all illicit drugs in July 2001 under Law 30/2000.
- Cases involving up to a ten-day supply of an illicit drug are referred to an administrative panel, which may recommend treatment, fines, warnings, or other penalties.
- Trafficking, cultivation, and possession of quantities exceeding a ten-day supply remain criminal offenses.
Is Portugal A Case Study for Legalization?
The direct answer based on the data and current reports is no. A 2009 Cato Institute report1 has been cited as evidence that softer drug laws don’t increase illicit drug use. However, the report’s findings have been questioned and are not considered reliable.
Most notably, the findings of the report were critiqued in an article by the Obama white house2.
Limitations in Current Research
- The Cato Institute report lacks statistical significance and sometimes focuses on minor prevalence rate changes (e.g., 0.8%).
- The report attributes favorable trends solely to decriminalization, overlooking other factors like a decline in drug-related deaths that began before decriminalization.
- The report tends to ignore or downplay evidence of adverse social effects, such as increased drug-related deaths in Portugal between 2004 and 2006.
Core Drug-Use Reduction Claims Not Conclusive
- The report claims a decline in drug usage among 15- to 19-year-olds from 2001 to 2007 but ignores increased rates in the 15-24 age group.
- Similarly, decreases in lifetime prevalence rates for specific age groups are highlighted, while increases in other age groups are downplayed.
- The report’s analysis mainly relies on lifetime prevalence data, which may not be adequate for short-term policy impact analysis.
Additional Studies and Contradictory Evidence
- Data from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) shows increased lifetime prevalence rates for multiple drugs in the Portuguese population between 2001 and 2007.
- Drug-induced deaths decreased from 369 in 1999 to 152 in 2003 but increased to 314 in 2007, higher than the 280 deaths recorded in 2001 when decriminalization began.
- Other countries like Spain have achieved decreases in lifetime prevalence rates for specific drugs between 2003 and 2008, contradicting claims that increases are “virtually inevitable in every nation.”
Claims of Benefits Exceed Supporting Science
- The Cato Institute report’s claims exceed the existing scientific basis, and more research is needed before drawing firm conclusions.
- The report’s findings may only apply to Portugal’s unique circumstances, such as its history of high rates of heroin use.
Reality is Catching Up Decades Later
According to the Washington Post3, here are the updated stats on Portugal, with data from 2022.
- A national survey shows that the percentage of adults in Portugal who have used illicit drugs rose from 7.8% in 2001 to 12.8% in 2022.
- Despite the increase, Portugal’s illicit drug use remains below the European average.
- Portugal’s prevalence of high-risk opioid use is higher than Germany’s but lower than France and Italy.
- Proponents of decriminalization in Portugal admit that the situation is problematic.
- Overdose rates in Portugal have reached 12-year highs.
- In Lisbon, overdose rates almost doubled from 2019 to 2023.
- Sewage samples in Lisbon show that the city has some of the highest rates of cocaine and ketamine detection in Europe, particularly on weekends.
- In Porto, the collection of drug-related debris from streets increased by 24% between 2021 and 2022, with 2023 expected to outpace 2022.
- Crime rates, including robbery in public spaces, spiked by 14%.
Porto Neighborhoods in Crisis
In a residential area a short eight-minute walk uphill from Porto’s designated center for safe drug use, locals are concerned about a surge in drug-related activity since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The neighborhood, characterized by upscale two-story homes and decorative gardens, has been labeled as experiencing an “invasion” by people using drugs.
Some have been in the area for years, originating from a now-demolished public housing complex, while others are new arrivals.
A makeshift drug encampment has appeared near a local school in the past year and a half.
Burglaries have increased, and residents have reported incidents such as finding individuals using drugs near their homes.
Unusual for Europe, community members have started American-style neighborhood watches and have even hired private security firms.
The police have escalated their presence over the last three months, focusing on arresting drug dealers and maintaining 24/7 patrols.
The city’s mayor and other critics are not advocating for a complete rollback of Portugal’s drug decriminalization policy.
Instead, they propose a targeted re-criminalization in specific urban zones, especially around schools and hospitals.
This has been a controversial suggestion, sparking resistance even within a nation that largely reveres its existing drug policy.
A resolution by Porto’s city commission to seek changes at the national level was met with opposition from nearly 200 experts who signed a letter against it.
A Drop in Funding
In the wake of prolonged economic turmoil, Portugal restructured its drug management system in 2012, significantly reducing its budget from 76 million euros ($82.7 million) to 16 million euros ($17.4 million).
This financial constraint led Portugal’s principal agency for drug oversight to delegate tasks traditionally performed by the government to nonprofit organizations.
This includes street teams that interact with individuals who use drugs.
The country is establishing a new institute to revitalize its drug prevention initiatives.
Porto Police Have Their Hands Tied
In Porto, law enforcement has ramped up patrols in neighborhoods beset by drug issues.
However, their hands are somewhat tied due to the existing decriminalization laws.
Police are becoming increasingly demotivated to register people for drug misuse at a time when waiting lists for state-funded rehab have grown longer despite fewer people seeking help.
The resurgence of visible drug use in urban settings is prompting local authorities, including Porto’s Mayor Rui Moreira, to question the viability of Portugal’s internationally praised drug policy.
Mayor Moreira pointed out to the Washington Post the contradictions in current regulations. While smoking tobacco near schools and hospitals is prohibited, but individuals are openly using drugs in those areas.
This has led him and others to argue that drug use has been ‘normalized,’ sparking a conversation about potentially revisiting and revising the country’s drug policies.
Finding Policies That Work
Portugal’s drug decriminalization model once hailed as a groundbreaking approach to treating drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal matter, is now under scrutiny.
With rising drug use, crime rates, and a noticeable decline in users seeking help, stakeholders are calling for a balanced approach that may involve tweaking the current laws.
As the world watches, the upcoming steps taken by the Portuguese government could set a precedent for drug policy globally.
Creating compelling and compassionate drug policies is a nuanced task that needs to address multiple concerns.
On one side, there’s a need for policies that offer rehabilitation and support to those battling substance abuse.
This recognizes that simply penalizing individuals often does not solve the underlying issues of addiction and may lead to a cycle of criminal activity and social isolation.
Conversely, it is crucial to ensure the safety and well-being of vulnerable communities, including families and children.
No one should worry about encountering dangerous drug paraphernalia in their neighborhood, as this creates physical and emotional hazards.
As a result, existing policies may need to be carefully reviewed and adjusted.
The goal should be comprehensive solutions that assist those with addiction issues while safeguarding the wider community.
This requires a collaborative approach involving law enforcement, healthcare providers, and community organizations to foster a safer, more supportive environment for everyone.