All Commentary
Monday, July 6, 2015

What Happened (And What Didn’t) When Portugal Decriminalized Drugs

The Economist examines the revolutionary change in drug policy

On July 1, 2001, Portugal did something extraordinary: it quit the war on drugs — or, at least, the war on drug users — by decriminalizing all controlled substances.

Portugal still tries to stop the supply of drugs, but, in the last fourteen years, it has not sent people to prison for possessing or using drugs. 

The decision was all the more remarkable because the country really did seem to have a problem with drugs: Portugal was in the middle of an “addiction epidemic,” with 1 in 100 Portuguese addicted to heroin.

But since the shift in policy, rates of STDs and drug overdoses have fallen dramatically. Since decriminalization, the Economist reports, drug-induced deaths have fallen by 80 percent, from 80 deaths in 2001 to just 16 in 2012. Meanwhile, the number of heroin addicts fell by half, in absolute terms, over the same period.

Because drug abuse is treated like a public health question instead of a criminal offense, the state focuses on treatment and harm-reduction.

Instead of increasingly militarized cops kicking down doors and “frisking” random people on the street, Portugal pays psychologists and treatment specialists to walk beats and offer help to addicts. Resources now go to clean needles and medical advice, instead of handcuffs and jail cells.

We can quibble about whether the government or charity could best address the health care needs of the poor. We can certainly disagree with the incoherent decision to keep the supply side illegal while legalizing consumption.

But all lovers of liberty must applaud the move away from a more coercive, more violent state, and toward a greater respect for the individual, for freedom choice, and for anything that’s peaceful.

  • Anything Peaceful is FEE's online ideas marketplace, hosting original and aggregate content from across the Web.