Portugal’s Decriminalization of Drug Use, Explained

February 28, 2019

In 2001, Portugal was experiencing an opioid-involved overdose crisis, similar to the one gripping the United States. The country used criminalization and incarceration to try to manage drug use, while HIV rates among people who use drugs were the highest in Europe.

In response to this emergency, Portugal launched its decriminalization program that year, and the rest is history. Overdose deaths have plummeted by 80 percent, while the percentage of drug users diagnosed with new HIV infections fell from 52 percent in 2000 to 7 percent in 2015. Rates of problematic drug use and drug-related incarceration have also fallen, while numbers of people voluntarily entering treatment for substance use issues have increased.

In March 2018, the US-based advocacy organization Drug Policy Alliance led a large delegation to Portugal to learn more about the impacts of decriminalization of drug use on health outcomes and society. DPA has just released the above video to tell part of the story.

Portugal decriminalized possession of small amounts of any drug—even though the substances themselves remain illegal. In practice, this means police records, jail time and other major sanctions no longer apply to people who use drugs. In the place of a punitive regime, dissuasion commissions were established through the Ministry of Health, without any association with law enforcement or the Ministry of Justice.

When police encounter someone with a small quantity of illegal drugs, the attending officer confiscates the substances and refers the person to a dissuasion commission. These are comprised of a legal professional and a health or social services official.

“If you are a person who uses drugs and appears before the dissuasion commission, you are given access to treatment on demand. If you don’t want to or can’t stop using drugs, harm reduction services are available to anyone who needs them,” says Hannah Getzer, DPA’s senior international policy manager, in the video.

As a result of the commission’s assessment of potential drug dependency, the person may also face sanctions, like fines or required therapy, according to DPA’s briefing paper.

“Drug criminalization fuels the United States’ dual crises of mass criminalization and overdose deaths,” said Widney Brown, managing director of Policy at DPA. “The Portuguese experience demonstrates that decriminalizing drugs—alongside a serious investment in treatment and harm reduction services—can significantly improve public safety and health.”

Screenshot: Drug Policy Alliance

Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard

Sessi is an independent drug journalist and drug-user activist. She lives in New York City.

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