With solid evidence showing punitive approaches to drugs do not work, the question that arises is what to do instead? In this first instalment of a Matters of Substance series on innovative drug policies in different countries, we look at Portugal – the small European country heralded as having a particularly successful drug harm-reduction approach.
Portugal’s drug policy reforms stemmed from past concerns about it having one of the worst drug problems in Europe, notably a heroin epidemic. Reports revealed almost 1 percent of the population suffered from drug dependency in 1999, and a new approach was needed.
In 2001, Portugal both decriminalised minor drug offences for all drugs and significantly scaled up public health and social support activities under a five pillar model of prevention, drug use dissuasion, harm reduction, treatment and reintegration.
Portugal’s drug policies were refocused on a public health model with significant state financial investment in drug harm- reduction activities. These included:
Overall, while Portugal’s drug use rates went up and down after its reforms, they were followed by dramatic reductions in drug-related harms, increased social inclusion and significantly reduced social costs. Since the new approach, changes include:
Zeeshan Aleem, ‘14 Years After Decriminalising All Drugs, Here’s What Portugal Looks Like’, Policy.Mic
Niamh Eastwood, Edward Fox and Ari Rosmarin, ‘A Quiet Revolution: Drug Decriminalisation Across The Globe’
European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), ‘Statistical Bulletin 2016’ EMCDDA
Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream (United Kingdom: Bloomsbury, 2015).
Caitlin Hughes and Alex Stevens, ‘Decriminalisation and public health: the Portuguese approach to drug policy’, Academia
Caitlin Hughes and Alex Stevens, ‘A resounding success or a disastrous failure: Re-examining the interpretation of evidence on the Portuguese decriminalisation of illicit drugs’, University of Kent
SICAD, ‘Annual Report 2013: The country's situation on drug matters and drug addiction’, SICAD, (2014),
United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, ‘Side event: A public health approach for drug policy: The Portuguese case’, CND Blog
Survey participants also reported that barriers to accessing services, resources and information were high.
A group of powerful synthetic opioids that were first detected in the country just a year ago may have already been linked to several deaths.
95% of respondents reported positive effects, in a study that looked at both prescription and black market cannabis use.