The Portuguese experiment with the legalisation of drugs

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the private use of all illicit drugs, including heroin, cannabis, and cocaine. As long as a person is not found in possession of more than 10 days’ worth of any of these drugs, use and possession is no longer a criminal offense. The main point of the new policy was to focus more on dissuasion, make it easier for addicted users to seek help, reduce the flow of funds to criminal gangs, and to reduce the burden of drug enforcement upon the criminal justice system.

How did they do? Politically speaking the scheme has been a success in that Portuguese politicians, including the current prime minister Socrates, have been bragging about their role in the introduction of this policy. What about the effects on usage and crime? I can do no better than to copy the conclusions of a recent paper on the issue by Hughes and Stevens, two UNSW based Australian researchers:

In the Portuguese case, the statistical indicators and key informant interviews that we have reviewed suggest that since decriminalization in July 2001, the following changes have occurred:

* small increases in reported illicit drug use amongst adults;
* reduced illicit drug use among problematic drug users and adolescents, at least since 2003;
* reduced burden of drug offenders on the criminal justice system;
* increased uptake of drug treatment;
* reduction in opiate-related deaths and infectious diseases;
* increases in the amounts of drugs seized by the authorities;
* reductions in the retail prices of drugs.

Perhaps worth copying here in Australia?

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

7 thoughts on “The Portuguese experiment with the legalisation of drugs”

  1. Perhaps worth copying here in Australia?
    Have you heard of the Herald Sun?  Of course it’s worth copying, but who’s got the energy to fight the anti-evidence crowd employed by the tabloid media?


  2. Extremely interesting study – I was not aware of any nation having gone so far in decriminalizing drug usage. One criticism is that the study was not clear on how policy liberalization impacted the operations or profits of drug traffickers other than indicating a higher level of drug seizures and a lower (minor/major drop?) retail price. It would be beneficial to know more on that level.

    While Australia has not travelled as far down Portugal’s path, some states are actively engaging in the decriminalization of minor drug use and harm minimization practices. Small wins…

    As an aside we are speaking of nominally illicit drugs. It is accepted medical practice that no potentially harmful drug should be freely available to the public – cigarettes and alcohol excepted – without medical prescription and oversight, enforced by legislation, i.e. we like our nanny state in sometimes illogical and contradictory doses.  On that basis shall we expand the state to include supply of these drugs or will we be content to let the small private contractor/supplier continue to satisfy demand.


  3. @DP
    Bring forward the food stamps I guess. “potentially harmful drug” could eventually encompass large sections of the nutriceutical and for that matter food-staple groups.
    Always interesting that booze and ciggies are always left out as well. 🙂
    Change “potentially harmful” to “regularly accidentally lethal” and I’d be happier to agree.
    What is more fascinating, and mirrors the decriminalisation of alchohol in the 1930s USA, is that Portugal did this because the cost of the war on drugs was becoming too high to service.


    Now go and look at the detail of the policy. Possession of small amounts is no longer a criminal offence, but drug possession has not been legalised. The change to the criminal code was accompanied by an increase in administrative sanctions, aimed at directing people into treatment.
    In fact, most Australian jurisdictions treat drug possession  the same way (if only because court and police time is expensive). But we lack the extensive resources deployed in Portugal to encourage (with sanctions) treatment.
    And, by the way, not all drugs are the same. Smokers are a nuisance to themselves and those in their immediate vicinity. Heavy crystal meth use quite often induces paranoiac psychosis, with accompanying violence. It’s the nuances that count.


  5. @I was not aware of any nation having gone so far in decriminalizing drug usage.
    Argentina and the Czech Republic have both also introduced similar measures in the past two years (though, I believe, not as broad as Portugal).


  6. Niko,
    yes, it does appear as if countries coming out of a dictatorial past are more open for this.


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