This Is Portugal 14 Years After Decriminalisation
3 min

This Is Portugal 14 Years After Decriminalisation

3 min
Legislation News
In 2001, Portugal did something that shocked the world, and had many leaders shaking their heads in disbelief. Portugal decriminalized drugs – all of them.

Portugal’s move to decriminalize all drugs was a bold one, there is no doubt about this. The move made it the first country in the world to do so, and plunged it into uncharted waters. However, at the time in 2001, many felt there was little alternative. Back in 1974, Portugal underwent a bloodless military coup that ended nearly 50 years of dictatorship, and led the way for democracy. However, this transition exposed a once sheltered and isolated nation to the many narcotics of the world. The desire to use hard drugs amongst the populace became so profound, that the country deemed it a crisis.

To try and curb the enthusiasm for drug abuse, Portugal adopted a hard-line, US style position on drug abuse, vilifying and incarcerating those that abused them. However, this conservative stance did little to halt the rising amount of drug abuse, and resulted in Portugal having the highest amount of drug-related AIDs deaths in the whole EU by the year 1999. It was also estimated that at this time, roughly 1% of the entire nation was addicted to heroin – a horrifying figure.

By 2001, the government of Portugal decided enough was enough. The war on drugs was not working, and their people were suffering as a result. They decided to take radical action, and the results have been revolutionary. Not only has decriminalizing all drugs caused drug use to plummet, it has made it plummet so far that Portugal is now a country with some of the lowest drug abuse figures in the world!


The positive change to Portugal’s drug problem is unprecedented. To give you a better idea of just how well the country is now doing, here is a handy breakdown:

(Source of graphs and stats: Transform Drug Policy Foundation)

Lifetime Prevalence


The first graph to look at is lifetime prevalence. This shows how many people have used drugs at least once in their lifetime, once within the last year, and once within the last month – for each year. The general trend is a lowering in use, flying right into the face of those who thought decriminalization would increase use. The chart does show a slight increase for 2007, although this was the trend across the globe. It is also worth noting that past-year prevalence and past-month prevalence are seen as the most accurate current indicators of drug abuse within a country.

Adolescent Lifetime Prevalence


Since the decriminalization of all drugs in 2001, the amount of 15-24 year olds using illicit substances has dropped dramatically. For many concerned about drug misuse, it is this age category that worries the most, as it is seen as being at the highest risk. This should put a lot of minds to rest, showing that decriminalization doesn’t make drugs more accessible for kids, and in fact, reduces their use. The graph pretty much mimics the previous graph, showing that on the whole, drug abuse has significantly fallen since decriminalization.

Continued Drug Use


This trend of reduced use has also translated to the populace of the entire country, with rates of continued use dropping from 45% all the way down to the 28%. It’s a gigantic drop in use, saving both lives and money.

Drug-Induced Death


Although the prevalence of drug use is the most looked at stat, it is also a good idea to look at drug induced deaths. This shows how the reduced use translates, and also how the shift to a health focused system instead of a justice one saves lives. Straight away you can see a huge preservation in life, thanks to the enactment of decriminalization policy. This has then stayed low, fluctuating, but never getting anywhere near as bad as things were.

Diagnoses of HIV and AIDS amongst Drug Users


Lastly, it would also appear that new cases of both HIV and AIDS have taken a tumble with the decriminalization of drugs. It means less needles are being shared, and just generally, less people are using things like heroin and harder substances – the health focused system is doing its job. It is great news, and once again shows success.


There is no doubt that decriminalization has helped this country bring drug abuse under control. By keeping users out of prison and ensuring they have access to help, the people of Portugal have become better educated, and more accepting of the pitfalls and pleasures of drugs. Decriminalization has by no means fixed everything, but it has definitely been a benefit.

Of course, it is not simply implementing a policy of decriminalization that reduces hard drug use, death and disease. It has to go hand in hand with other factors. For example, at the same time as decriminalizing all drugs, Portugal implemented a robust health system, expanded its welfare system, and guaranteed people a minimum income. It is factors like these -- which ensure those who are lost within society are helped instead of punished – that allow decriminalization to change a country for the better. Either way, Portugal has shown the world that decriminalisation not only works, it is superior to any other system currently being used. They are 14 years going strong, and it doesn’t look like they are going to stop!

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