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?

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27 Responses to The Portuguese experiment with the legalisation of drugs

  1. cbp says:

    Reductions in the retail prices of drugs? I’m for it!

  2. Patrick says:

    It is really hard to be completely ‘pro-drugs’ when they are so destructive. After more than a decade of oscillating between [support for] complete legalisation and hard-line enforcement of prohibition, I am increasingly convinced that legalisation is the only rational solution – if nothing else, the taxpayer cost (of enforcement + medical care + incarceration + flow-on victim compensation), human cost (the users and their victims) and wider social cost (increased crime, ghettoes, entrenched underclass, etc) of prohibition are just far too high individually let alone in aggregate.

  3. conrad says:

    Patrick — I’m pro legalizing drugs also. That being said, I think I’d prefer to see drug laws incrementally relaxed. That way you could see the effect step by step, and so if there were cultural interactions that make Australia different to Portugal, you would get some idea of them before anything too serious happened. Since there’s no real hurry, that could be done over, say, a decade, starting with non-addictive drugs (in the physiological sense) whose main effect is on the user (e.g., pot, sedatives, etc.), and move on to ones that potentially cause other people problems later (e.g., ice).

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thx for the update Paul.

  5. Yaz says:

    I’m pro-legalisation, too, mostly because noone, least of all the US, has ‘won’ a ‘war on drugs’. Hoever, like Conrad, I think t’would be much better to do incrementally, starting with those drugs whose social impaces are low (ie. those where the users are almost never a danger to others, such as ecstasy or marijuana). I’m more cautious on anti-social drugs like speed, but perhaps these should just be taxed higher to help pay for the social costs of policing etc.

  6. Phil Wilson says:

    I wonder why the researchers refer to them as illicit drugs when they are legalized in Portugal, where the research is concerned. It will be interesting to see what happens in California.

  7. Adam says:

    You should really point out that small increases in adult use were also seen in Spain and Italy and so aren’t attributable to decriminalisation.

    “By comparing the trends in Portugal and neighbouring Spain and Italy, we can say that while some trends clearly reflect regional shifts (e.g. the increase in use amongst adults) and/or the expansion of services throughout Portugal, some effects do appear to be specific to Portugal. Indeed, the reduction in problematic drug users and reduction in burden of drug offenders on the criminal justice system were in direct contrast to those trends observed in neighbouring Spain and Italy. Moreover, there are no signs of mass expansion of the drug market in Portugal. This is in contrast with apparent market expansions in neighbouring Spain.”

  8. Big Fat Earl says:

    Legalization does nothing to discourage the use of destructive substances. What we need is harsher punishment for those who would tear down society in this way. Publicly executing dealers would be a start.

  9. wilful says:

    “legalising” is surely imprecise, isn’t the better word “decriminalising”? Turn this into a health issue, not a laura norder one.

    but with the Herald Sun etc editorial line, it would be a very brave politician to try anything rational like this.

    Just one observation, when I was in Porto in 2003, the smack problem seemed to be quite severe, far worse than in Footscray, my home town. But of course there could be many reasons for that…

  10. conrad says:

    “it would be a very brave politician to try anything rational like this.”

    Ask Bob Brown, and thank the Greens for putting up yet another issue for discussion that everyone else is afraid of.

  11. Paul Frijters says:


    yes, the drugs debate is one of those debates where those who want to argue for the penal approach use arguments that don’t stand up to scrutiny and where you thus wonder what the ‘real’ reasons are that people are too afraid to talk about.

  12. Is it that for drugs compete with other mental technologies such as religious belief?

  13. Nightowl77 says:

    What you resist persists. This is always 100% true, whether it is on a personal day to day level, or a national/governmental level. I wish someone would get it, that phrase is like a thousand year old, and people are still clueless. Look at what happened to alcohol in the 1930 when america tried to ban it.

    Do not resist ANYTHING or you WILL create more of it. It’s that simple.

  14. Tel says:

    It is really hard to be completely ‘pro-drugs’ when they are so destructive.

    My feeling is that we should start from the softest drugs and work up, but put limits on it:

    * allow people to legally grow their own
    * limit the maximum amount to be grown per household
    * outlaw the refinement of raw plant matter
    * outlaw trade and commerce in drugs

    Thus, start with marijuana, but only allow perhaps 2 square meters per household under cultivation, and outlaw the refinement of hash. It would knock down the price while still putting some limits on abuse.

    An evolutionary approach is better than a revolutionary approach so wait a few years and let things settle. Then do the same by allowing people to grow coca leaves, for their own consumption (in small quantity) and outlaw the refinement of cocaine.

    Finally work towards allowing small amounts of opium poppies, but still crack down on heroin (i.e. the refined product).

    My logic is that personal consumption fundamentally is personal choice, but trade in drugs is a social issue because trade in drugs inevitably involves pushing drugs (i.e. deliberately getting people addicted). If you grow it, and you consume it yourself, then that’s none of my business.

    The refined derivatives of most drugs are primarily for the purpose of convenient packaging and transport — i.e. they are products designed for the marketplace. Anyone growing large quantities or involved in refining is most probably a dealer, not someone consuming their own crop.

    It does at least form a reasonably consistent philosophical position, draws a balance between keeping the price down, personal liberty, and harm minimization, while still sending an anti-drug message and discouraging those who would make a profit from someone else’s addiction.

    I suspect if we got those big three legalized then the market for amphetamines and synthetic hallucinogens would be much smaller. I’m dubious about going open-slather and legalizing drugs like PCP which don’t exist in any natural form, and which allow people to go substantially beyond the scope of what is normally accepted as human. I mean, there will come a time when we have to come to terms with technological transhumanism in both it’s chemical and electronic incarnations but small steps are good steps. Give our genetics and culture time to keep up.

    Is it that for drugs compete with other mental technologies such as religious belief?

    The Baptist and the Bootlegger.

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  16. Paul Frijters says:


    the key ingredient of the Portuguese approach, which also holds for the Dutch approach, is the strong social norm against problem drug use. Drunks and problem snorters might not be doing something illegal, but they are seen by their friends and family as losers. That social stigma works to keep moderate users from becoming problem users and is what drives many problem users to try and better their lives. To adopt this here would need the possibility of a strong social stigma in the absence of a penal code.

  17. Tel says:


    Government cannot create social movements (they try hard but it always fails). Social movements can create government (if they get big enough). Whatever social stigma to drug use that exists, and whatever further developes can only do so as a natural consequence of cause, effect and observation amongst the people themselves.

    As a society, our best bet is to let the losers lose and, see who they turn out to be. After all, the number of rich and famous in the USA doing cocaine makes it awfully difficult to create some artificial idea that its a drug for losers when common knowledge says exactly the opposite.

  18. FDB says:

    “The refined derivatives of most drugs are primarily for the purpose of convenient packaging and transport”

    Nope. Primarily it’s about making it easier to get high, without having to eat/smoke your way through kilos of often carcinogenic and/or foul tasting crap. Cocaine, mescaline, DMT, and lots of other fun drugs exist in really only trace concentrations in their natural sources.

  19. Unul says:

    What most of you people don’t get is that Portugal had very very few drug addicts compared to US, Australia, Canada and so on.
    In Portugal the legalization got the drug dealers out of business but in bigger drug markets the legalization won’t do a thing. It happened and it happens and it will happen in every field!

  20. RCon says:

    Prohibition has always, will always, be the problem with drugs. The fact you have to hide yourself away with very undesirable types to continue your habit greatly contributes to social isolation and an eroding of barriers. In turn, this raises barriers to employment and a “normal” lifestyle.

    This is not to suggest the drugs themselves do not have undesirable side effects, but regulated consumption and more importantly, regulated supply & manufacture, can mitigate these, as has been shown with both alcohol and cigarettes.

    IMO “decriminalization” is only encouraging users to take risks with products of unknown concentration/constitution – regulate supply and manufacture much better choice.

  21. FDB says:

    “What most of you people don’t get is that Portugal had very very few drug addicts compared to US, Australia, Canada and so on.”

    Compared to Australia? Do you have a citation for that?

  22. conrad says:

    FDB, the UN data suggests that for Opiates, consumption rates are probably quite similar in Aus and Portugal (and I therefore assume addictions rates are also), whereas for most other drugs, Austrailans are higher.

  23. Tom says:

    As a Portuguese i’m shocked in how many times i’ve seen only the partial truth quoted.

    Decriminalized doesn’t mean legalized. It doesn’t mean 10 days worth of drugs and they’ll let you go.

    It means your no longer a criminal cause you’re considered an ill person. You are now a sick person for having a small amount of drugs. 10 days worth of drugs and they’ll take them from you, take down your name and if you’re reapeatedly caught with the drugs they’ll force you to attend some sort of rehabilitation (depends on the drugs).

    Anything other than that (above the small amount or growing your own) and they’ll throw ll they got at charging you as a drug dealer. At the same time in 2001 they made penalties to drug dealers very harsh.

    It’s still all about combating consumption, just not about combating the users anymore…

  24. Paul Frijters says:


    I wondered about the degree to which drug dealing would be more severely punished in Portugal when writing the post. Whenever you decriminalise the posession (and hence use) of small amounts, you have the problem of how to treat the person selling the small amounts? If it is no longer criminal to own 10 daily portions of cocaine, how can you reasonably crack down on the person selling those portions? In reality, you cant and to some extent, you never wanted to be in the enforcement business to pick up the small dealers. The small dealer would simply make sure not to be seen with too big a stash. Hence you will find yourself in a grey zone where you only tackle the dealers in really big quantities. In the paper above this is indeed one of the conclusions, i.e. that fewer people are sent to jail for trafficking, but greater amounts are captured.

    The same has happened in the Netherlands where the legal issue of how the coffee shops get their supplies has been a thorny one for years. There is not much point in locking up all the small dealers who provide these coffee shops. Decriminalisation allows the police to focus on the big players.

    As a point of language, the post uses the word legalisation in its title to denote a process of taking away legal obstacles to consumption, a process that Portugal has only partially engaged in. The post itself is (hopefully) very careful about using the words decriminalisation and ‘taking away’ criminal offenses.

  25. Thomas (from EU) says:

    “It is really hard to be completely ‘pro-drugs’ when they are so destructive.”

    Hypocritical attitude. Unless suicide is a crime, too. But what would be the penalty for attempted suicide? Death?

    In most countries suicides kill more people than drugs, why the other is illegal and the other not?

    Prohibition just doesn’t work. It hasn’t ever worked and yet we have hypocrites who demand it everywhere.

    I’m not saying that leaving selling to drug barons would be a good idea, just mass produce any drug you want and sell from official shops: A state monopoly.

    Price competition alone kills illegal drug barons and they really have to do something to earn their money: dealing drugs is so trivial and profits so huge, it won’t end, ever.

    It’s quite obvious that major money generators for organized crime is drugs and weapons: Cut the other leg and the criminal empire falls.

    Of course politicians don’t want that because they are being bribed with drug money, every day.

  26. Patrick says:

    Thomas, I hate to ask, but how is it hypocritical to reluctantly support something that, on balance, you think is the better and necessary path, but that you can see has deleterious side-effects?

    Do you happen to think that the opposite of hypocrisy is rabid enthusiasm for one’s preferred option in each case?

  27. FDB says:

    “Do you happen to think that the opposite of hypocrisy is rabid enthusiasm for one’s preferred option in each case?”

    As it happens, I believe exactly that. About midway between hypocrisy and zealotry lies nuance, reason, civilisation etc etc… all that boring shit.

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