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What Does Portuguese Drug Policy Teach Us?

April 29, 2009
by Daniel Guarnera
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Thanks to NAADAC Govt. Relations Intern Mara Gray for guest-blogging this post!

Glenn Greenwald—a popular liberal blogger and author who got his start tracking civil liberty issues under the Bush Administration—recently waded into the drug policy debate with a report entitled “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies.” The white paper was published with the support of the Cato Institute, the leading libertarian think tank in Washington. His report looks at drug prevalence rates in the European nations between the years of 2001 – 2007 to ascertain the effects of Portugal’s decriminalization of drug use. Although it has received little publicity (until now), in 2001 Portugal adopted the most lenient drug laws of any developed country. This report seeks to analyze its effects.

This photo is used with a Creative Commons license; the original can be found here.

It should first be noted that Portugal’s policy is more accurately called “depenalization” rather than “decriminalization” or “legalization.” Illicit drugs are still illegal, but violators will not serve jail time. This is primarily because Portugal is a signatory to several international drug control treaties that it would violate by removing all drug-related crimes from their books. Drug trafficking, however, remains a serious criminal offense. Those caught using drugs (including cocaine and heroin) or possessing a small amount for personal use, however, are given an administrative citation and required to appear before a “Commission for Dissuasion of Drug Addiction.” This Commission is intentionally designed not to resemble a criminal proceeding. Depending on the circumstances of the violation, the person given the citation can be fined, required to seek treatment, or let off with a warning.

Greenwald reports that the Portuguese experiment has helped reduce many drug-related problems. Usage rates for almost every drug has decreased over the six years after depenalization went into effect, as have the number of new HIV and AIDS cases among drug users and deaths from overdoses (although these numbers decreased among all European countries during this period). Among European nations, Portugal has the lowest lifetime prevalence of marijuana use (8.2%); only five countries had lower usage of cocaine (Portugal reported 1.6% lifetime prevalence). The United States, by contrast, has a lifetime prevalence marijuana rate of 42.4% and the cocaine life time prevalence reaches 16.2% - the highest rates among all the countries Greenwald includes in his charts.

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Daniel Guarnera

Daniel Guarnera is the Director of Government Relations for NAADAC, The Association for...