Home > Reports examine effects of decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal.

Connolly, Johnny (2009) Reports examine effects of decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 30, Summer 2009, pp. 22-23.

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Portugal became the first country in the European Union to decriminalise all drugs, including cocaine and heroin, under a statue passed in 2000.1 Although drug possession for personal use and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited in Portugal, violations of these prohibitions are deemed exclusively administrative violations and are removed from the criminal process. Drug trafficking continues to be prosecuted as a criminal offence. The law, according to a report commissioned by the Beckley Foundation,2 'formed part of a strategic approach to drug use which aimed to focus police resources on those people who profit from the drugs trade, while enabling a public health approach to drug users' (p. 2). A recent analysis of the legal reforms by the US-based Cato Institute3 has concluded that 'judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success' (p. 2).

Although several EU states have developed either formal or de facto forms of de-penalisation, particularly for personal cannabis use, whereby offenders seldom receive custodial sanctions, no EU state except Portugal has explicitly decriminalised drugs. Under the statute, decriminalisation applies to the consumption, purchase and possession of all drugs for 'one's own consumption', which is defined as a quantity 'not exceeding the quantity required for an average individual consumption during a period of ten days' (Article 2). No distinction is made between drug types or between public and private consumption.
 The statute establishes Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction (CDTs) to adjudicate and impose appropriate sanctions for violations of the new law. The CDTs comprise three members appointed jointly by the ministries of justice and health and the government's co-ordinator of drug policy, whereby one will have legal training and at least one of the other two will have a medical or social services background.
Article 15 sets out the authorised administrative sanctions, which can include warnings and/or fines of an amount between €25 and the minimum wage. In the absence of evidence of addiction or repeated violations, the imposition of a fine is to be suspended. The CDT can also suspend sanctions on condition that the offender attends treatment. The Cato report points out that it is difficult to enforce such conditions in practice 'since violations of a commission's rulings are not, themselves, infractions of any law' (p. 3).
Where offenders are deemed to be addicted to drugs, the CDT can impose a range of other sanctions, including, as summarised in the Cato report, 'suspension of the right to practise a licensed profession (doctor, lawyer, taxi driver); a ban on visiting high-risk locales (nightclubs); a ban on associating with specified individuals; ... prohibitions on travel abroad' (p. 4). In determining the appropriate sanction, the CDT must consider factors such as 'the seriousness of the act; the type of drug consumed; whether consumption was public or private; and whether usage is occasional or habitual' (p. 4). However, providing drugs to a minor (or to a person with mental illness) is considered an aggravating factor under the general prohibition of trafficking, which is punishable by imprisonment of between four and 12 years.
Police officers who observe drug use or possession are required to issue citations to the offender, but they are not permitted to make an arrest. The citation is sent to the CDT and the administrative process then commences. The Cato report notes that the reaction of police officers to the initiative has been mixed, with some believing that 'the issuance of citations, without arrest or the threat of criminal prosecutions, is worthless' (p. 4), while other officers are now more inclined to act when they see drug use because they believe the new regime and the types of treatment it offers are a more effective response to personal drug use. The Beckley Foundation report described the nature of the support for the latter view:
The law enforcement sector was seen as supportive of the reform, particularly because they perceived decriminalization and referral to education and treatment as offering a better response to drug users than under the previous legislative approach. Key informants asserted law enforcement have embraced the more preventative role for drug users. (p. 6)
According to the Cato report, there were 3,192 CDT rulings in Portugal in 2007. Of these, 83% suspended the proceedings; 15% imposed actual sanctions; and 2.5% resulted in absolution or dismissal. Cannabis continues to be the substance for which the greatest percentage of drug offenders are cited. Despite fears expressed by those opposing the reform prior to 2001, decriminalisation has not led to an increase in drug use.  On the contrary, lifetime drug prevalence rates have decreased in Portugal since the reform. For the critical age groups of 13-15 years and 16-18 years, 'prevalence rates have declined for virtually every substance since decriminalization' (p. 12). Furthermore, the author links a fall in the numbers of new cases of drug-related HIV and AIDS, hepatitis B and C infection, and drug-related death to the coming into effect of the law in 2001. Although he acknowledges that these trends started prior to 2001 and were due in part to education reforms and harm reduction initiatives introduced in Portugal, he suggests that the removal of the fear and stigma of arrest and prosecution incentivised drug users to avail of these new treatment and education initiatives.
 The analysis by the Beckley Foundation sounds a more cautious note, which probably accurately reflects the current debate about decriminalisation in Portugal:
Decriminalization has enabled earlier intervention and more targeted and therapeutic responses to drug users, increased collaboration across a network of services and increased attention to adopting policies that work. ... Yet, key informants also highlighted that impacts were less than expected and that there were concerns over the message that decriminalization was sending to new drug users. (p. 9)
 1. Law 30/2000 of 16 November 2000 came into force in Portugal on 1 July 2001. Published online in the official gazette, Diário da República (DR), No. 276, pp. 6829-6832.
2. Hughes C and Stevens A (2007) The effects of decriminalization of drug use in Portugal. Briefing paper 14. Oxford: The Beckley Foundation. Available at www.beckleyfoundation.org/pdf/BriefingPaper14.pdf
3. Greenwald G (2009) Drug decriminalization in Portugal: lessons for creating fair and successful drug policies. Washington DC: Cato Institute.  www.cato.org

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