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America Can Learn A Lot From Portugal’s Drug Policy

  • by Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel August 29, 2016

    C1_8734_r_xSince 1996, when California voters approved the medical use of marijuana, most of the high-profile political progress that has been made towards legalizing marijuana has been made in the United States. And starting with Colorado and Washington, all of the full legalization experiments have been homegrown.

    But that does not mean we should not be looking to other countries for successful experiments and policies. Drug use and abuse is worldwide, so the solution to the destructive war on drug users must also be worldwide.

    The Portugal Experiment

    In 2001, the Portugal legislature bravely enacted a comprehensive form of drug decriminalization, in which all criminal penalties were removed for personal drug possession and use offenses — reclassifying them as administrative violations. Instead of arresting individuals in possession of personal-use amounts of any drug, defined as less than a ten-day supply of any drug — a gram of heroin, ecstasy, or amphetamine; two-grams of cocaine; or 25 grams of marijuana — they are now given a violation and ordered to appear before a rather ominous sounding “dissuasion commission.”

    The possession of larger amounts of drugs and drug sales continue to be criminal matters for which an offender is subject to arrest and prosecution.

    The “dissuasion commission,” which is comprised of one local legal official and two health and social service professionals, first determines whether the individual is addicted, and if so to what degree. It then determines whether the individual is referred to a voluntary treatment program, given a fine, or receives other administrative sanctions. The majority of cases are simply suspended, and the violator receives no sanction. According to Nuno Capaz, a sociologist who serves on the Lisbon “dissuasion panel,” between 80 and 85 percent of the people who are referred to the panels today are caught with hashish or cannabis.

    For persistent offenders, or those identified as addicts, these panels can order sanctions or treatment, and recreational users may face fines or community service. If an addict refuses treatment, they are required to check in regularly with their family doctor (Portugal has a free national healthcare program), and if they fail, the local police remind them of their obligation. And those running the Portuguese system attribute this close working relationship between the police and the public health officials as crucial to their success. “This small change actually makes a huge change in terms of police officers’ work,” says Capaz. “Of course, every policy officer knows where people hang out to smoke joints. If they wanted to they would just go there and pick up the same guy over and over. That doesn’t happen.”

    Flying in the face of the more prevalent “lock-em-up and throw-away-the-key” anti-drug policies popular at the time in most countries, especially the United States, there were initially fears that Portugal would become overrun with heroin addicts from all over Europe, and the government received a lot of criticism for their experimental policy from such staid groups as the International Narcotics Control Board – part of the UN drug convention system.

    What Decriminalization Really Means

    Decriminalization was a half-way measure originally recommended for marijuana policy in the U.S. by the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse in 1972. It says consumers, who generally comprise up to 90 percent of the marijuana arrests, should be removed from the criminal justice system, but that commercial sales of marijuana should remain illegal. While that is obviously an improvement over total prohibition, where users are also subject to arrest and jail, it generally is thought to lead to an increase in demand without any legal supply — a boon to the illegal black market and those willing to take the risk to sell to the newly legal consumers.

    Seventeen states in the U.S. have enacted a version of marijuana decriminalization (some have eliminated all penalties for minor possession offenses; others have reduced the penalty to a fine-only). But more recently states that wish to end prohibition have looked toward full legalization, where the commercial market is regulated and taxed. Nonetheless, decriminalization remains an option for those states that no longer wish to treat smokers as criminals, but do not yet feel politically comfortable with full legalization.

    Not The Results In Portugal That Were Expected

    But the results from Portugal seem to dispel those initial fears that decriminalizing drugs would result in an increase in dangerous drug use, especially among addicts.

    First, and most importantly, decriminalization in Portugal for a decade and a half has not led to any major increases in the rate of drug use. There were minor increases in drug use during the initial year (2001), but the rates of drug use after that have not changed significantly, or, in some cases, have actually declined since 2001, and remain below the average rates in both Europe and the United States. And importantly, adolescent use, and use by people who are deemed “dependent” or who inject drugs, has decreased in Portugal since 2003.

    So decriminalization may yet prove to be an attractive alternative to prohibition for the more dangerous drugs in the United States. No one wants to see a cocaine store on the corner, but neither do most people want to ruin an individual’s life with a long prison sentence for the use of cocaine. If it is a problem, it is a medical one, not a criminal justice problem.

    And Portugal has experienced more than a 60 percent decrease in the number of people arrested and prosecuted for drug offenses. More than 80 percent of the cases coming before the “dissuasion commissions” are perceived to have no problems and receive no sanction.

    The percentage of prisoners in Portuguese prisons for drug offenses has been reduced from a high of 44 percent to the current rate of 13 percent. And drug overdose deaths have decreased from 80 in 2001 to 16 in 2012. In the U.S., for comparison, more than 14,000 people died from prescription opioid overdoses alone each year.

    “There is no doubt that the phenomenon of addiction is in decline in Portugal,” Portugal’s Drug Czar Dr. Joao Goulão explained, according to Drug Policy Alliance. He attributed this shift to “a set of policies that target reduction of both supply and demand, including measures of prevention, treatment, harm reduction and social reinsertion.” Adding that, “[t]he biggest effect has been to allow the stigma of drug addiction to fall, to let people speak clearly and to pursue professional help without fear.”

    And he strongly favors a policy of harm reduction. “I think harm reduction is not giving up on people,” Dr. Goulão said, according to Vice, “…assuming that even if someone is still using drugs, that person deserves the investment of the state in order to have a better and longer life.”

    And even the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has concluded that “Portugal’s policy has reportedly not led to an increase in drug tourism. It also appears that a number of drug-related problems has decreased.” And some leading independent researchers investigating the Portugal experiment wrote in the British Journal of Criminology in 2010 that “contrary to predictions, the Portuguese decriminalization did not lead to major increases in drug use. Indeed, evidence indicates reductions in problematic use drug-related harms and criminal justice overcrowding.”

    So What Can We Learn From Portugal

    First, we can begin to stop treating so harshly illicit drug users, who use something other than marijuana. Sure heroin and cocaine and methamphetamine are more potentially dangerous than marijuana; but that does not mean those drug users should be treated like criminals. If, like Portugal, we can minimize abuse, greatly reduce the number of people arrested on drug charges, reduce overdose deaths, reduce adolescent drug use and problematic drug abuse, greatly reduce our prison population, and still maintain a safe, free and open society, then why would we not want to begin to move in that direction?

    Also, we can learn from Portugal the importance of adopting a policy of harm reduction that recognizes the value of all lives, including those who may, for a time, use dangerous drugs, and to provide needed mental health services to those whom we can identify as problem drug abusers. Portugal seems to make it clear that their success simply could not have been possible without making health care professionals available to those who will avail themselves of that help.

    And third, we can and should learn that the stigma of drug use or abuse — regardless of the drug involved — needs to be eliminated, to create an environment in which individuals feel free to seek help without fear of being labeled a bad person. It’s time to treat drug abuse as a medical issue, not primarily a criminal justice issue.

    25 Responses to “America Can Learn A Lot From Portugal’s Drug Policy”

    1. Mark Mitcham says:

      I fully concur.

      1) harm reduction: marijuana, like hard drugs, can be dealt with rationally rather than ideologically, to reduce the harms to society and individuals associated with that drug (including the harms of prohibition of that drug.) Harm reduction is a powerful principle for saving lives and reducing suffering, while sidestepping pointless and needless ideological bickering.

      2) marijuana is medicine: fact. In it’s natural form, marijuana is medicine, and people have a right to it, period. Consider the Epipen controversy, and other price-gouging scandals of life-saving drugs: Corporate America doesn’t see medicine as a human right, it sees medicine as an extortionist weapon, and the more medically desperate you are, the more you pay, motherfucker! That has to stop, and American Universal Health Care, including a right to all medicines, could be the solution to stopping this corporate “vampirism” in that area.

      3) Addiction: if it is a problem, it’s a medical problem, not a criminal problem.

      Right on, Keith!!!

      • Scott B says:

        Amen. Profits for large corporations are put ahead of the health, privacy, and freedom of tax-paying US citizens. I am tired of being treated like a child by the government I support with my tax dollars.

    2. Julian says:

      Thank you Keith for highlighting such an excellent example of decriminalization vs. Prohibition in Portugal and standing up for regulating other drugs besides marijuana such as cocaine in healthy cooperation with law enforcement. We marijuana activists know that legalizing marijuana is precursor to viewing all drug consumption as a health issue and not a criminal justice issue. But we have to see it to believe it.
      I recently traveled through “Lishboa” (Lisbon), and I have to say the police and culture are awesome even while under pressure. As I was traveling back from Switzerland, it was right after that piece of $#!+ drove a truck through all those people in Nice, France. European airports were on high alert. But the Portuguese police were friendly as they searched my bags… Real relaxed, sympathetic people. While Swiss Air and American Airlines required a chain of official signatures while waiting in line in person and official death certificate to travel with my father’s ashes, TAP, or Trans-Air-Portugal just asked for an email of the medical report (much faster to obtain). They also provide free Portuguese beer, and much more relaxed accommodations on the flight. I wasn’t traveling for cannatourism, but if I had the option of which European nation to visit? Portugal is “high” on the list. The Portuguese are so cool!

      “Obrigado Lisboa, por não me fazer tirar os sapatos só para entrar em seu país !”

    3. newsweed says:

      Sure, America can learn a lot from Portugal. But also all the countries where the prohibition is still a reality and where the crooked arguments like raise of consumption and criminality are still publicly told.

    4. Galileo Galilei says:

      I remember Portugal’s original success with it’s kinder, gentler drug policy from years ago at the height of the Drug War.

      The Drug Warriors smugly insisted it would not work here.

    5. Miles says:

      Great article Keith and I agree 100%. I only wish America’s leaders would pay attention and show at least half as much intelligence on this subject as you do.

      Speaking of intelligence, I find it outrageous that someone like Carl Sagan had to keep his cannabis usage a secret for his entire life or risk loosing everything he worked for. I’m talking about someone whose intelligence dwarfs your average Senator and Congressman who make the rules we are forced to live by.

    6. mytruxblaze says:

      here in missourri we have some law called RIGHT TO FARM some guy in st luis just beat a possesion charge using this law – is this a pathway to legalization in missourri can we use this to our advabtage ? i would love to see a story on this

    7. J.Young says:

      This is the the right direction to go and is the plan of the Libertarian candidates Johnson/Weld

      • Miles says:

        I do so wish that the Clinton campaign would get onboard with legalization. Promising to change cannabis to schedule 2 of the CSL does not thrill me. It is only the tiniest babystep after many decades of prohibition. If she does get onboard then she will definately get my vote. If not, I still might vote for Gary Johnson.

        At this point in time the only reason I am even considering voting for Hillary is to prevent a Trump presidency. I do no trust Hillary; like about 80% of Americans…

        • Mark Mitcham says:

          Yeah. It’s been clear all along: if one understands why cannabis doesn’t belong in schedule I, one must also realize then, it doesn’t belong in schedule II, either.

          And so, I tend to see talk about schedule II as prohibitionist change-of-tact, rather than a change-of-heart. It’s more retreat than concession. When the DEA recently refused to change from schedule I, they said they were trying to isolate the “good” components from the “bad” components. Schedule II, if it happens, will be strictly for the benefit of Corporate America, and at the cost of American lives.

          So I tend to agree with you. But as Julian pointed out, they’ll never be able to improve on cannabis, which is already perfect; so they’re wasting their time. Whatever they patent will be shit. We ain’t gonna use it — not when we’ve got the real thing! And that’s despite everything they’ve done to try to prevent that. Prohibition has failed.

          So maybe, we just need someone, a candidate like Obama, who will agree not to interfere with the states that legalize — where the real progress has occurred. And, as I understand it, Hillary has agreed to that.

          Problem with Trump is, he’ll say anything, but all the hard-core drug warriors are lining up behind Trump. (Think Chris Christie.) We sure don’t need them in power!

          But still, I don’t disagree with you: Hillary’s statements on cannabis are just plain old ignorant.

    8. Fat Freddy says:

      Why do cannabis proponents tout cannabidiol as medicine and mention that it doesn’t get one high. What is wrong with getting high?

      Why do prohibitionists say that MJ is dangerous because it is more potent, when it takes less smoking, the dangerous part, to get one as high as smoking a lot of it?

      • Mark Mitcham says:

        Cannabis proponents tout cannabidiol because it is medically useful. The fact that it doesn’t get you high is good for those who need the medicine, but don’t like or don’t want to be “high.” (Strange but true, some folks just don’t care for it.)

        And, the reason why prohibitionists say that MJ is more dangerous when it’s more potent, is because they’re fucking liars; that’s what prohibitionists do, they fucking lie. Maybe they believe their own lies, maybe they don’t; but either way they’re full of shit.

      • Don M says:

        Like the term “marijuana”, I think the terms “high” and “stoned” have been demonized. Doesn’t it seem odd that the term “drunk” or “tipsy” is more acceptable to so-called “proper” society?

        I think that instead of getting high or stoned, we should all start getting relaxed or enhanced!

        Surely something has got to work on the prohibitionist mindset that finds cannabis to be so unacceptable. Vocabulary might be part of the key since it is part of how they demonized it in the first place.

      • Julian says:

        Because if the weed has more THC than CBD it creates “street value,” so Governors like mine here in Texas who are in the pockets of corrupt prosecutors and organized crime within state and local governments have to pitch medical marijuana as “non-psychoactive” with “no street value,” so they can save face when they say they won’t “legalize marijuana.” The language is very tricky as we are currently in a legal battle for what we legally define as “medicine.” This legal and social word play is nothing new really when one considers that cannabis could never have been prohibited if they didn’t call what Mexicans were consuming “marijuana” nearly a century ago, a word Americans assumed was another plant than cannabis.
        Today, In Mexico, the proposition for prohibiting recreational while legalizing medical mj goes so far as to import medicinal strains from Colorado. Hows that for word play? More like a Word War…

        • Janis Reasnor says:

          Texas is all abt putting people away for life. Lot’s of the people within the Judicial System, from the top down,are corrupt and doing worse things, than the people they’re putting in prison. This War on Drugs has created, profiteering off the suffering of others. It’s a shame, what we are doing to our families. Not happy with Hillary’s stance on mj, but Trump scares the hell out of me!

      • mexweed says:

        Some, maybe not all prohibitionists claim “more potent” MJ is more dangerous precisely BECAUSE it requires less $moking!– and BECAUSE they are $inancially tied to Big 2WackGo which makes its money off hbomp$ Hot Burning Overdose Monoxide Paperpuff$ig $moking. This may apply even to hospitals (Surgeon General 2014: “US-cost $135-bil./yr. medical care for $moking-related illness”– someone made that money) treating conditions which would have been PREVENTED by (a) substituting 25-mg single-toke for 700-mg $igarette AND/OR 500-mg joint, (b) substituting Vape for $moke, (c) substituting cannabis– or alfalfa, basil, chamomile, damiana, eucalyptus etc. for tobacco.

    9. Herbalist says:

      What on the face of the earth is wrong with getting high ? What does “getting high” mean?
      “Getting high to me is feeling happy !!! This is my constitutional right to THE PURSUIT OF LIFE LIBERTY AND HAPPINESS; US CONSTITUIN ’76;

      • Julian says:

        Herbalist, the short answer to what is “wrong” with getting high, is the artificially inflated black market cost of psychoactive strains of marijuana profiting prohibitionist political campaign donations.
        All the puritanical nonesense about the sin of pleasure is merely residual symptoms of passive-aggressive Colonial American subjugation to the taxes for the cannabis sativa and all the other “pleasure crops” of commercial value; aside from the slaves who used the cannabis they grew anyway, there had to be a concerted effort to control the growth and general education surrounding hemp, which was non-psychoactive as it was strategically important to military dominance. The control of the hemp trade even lead to the war of 1812 after Americans tried to procure hemp seed from Russia, threatening Brittain’s monopoly on the trade.
        While the true propaganda from the reefer madness years, fearing the “dark pleasures” of the herb, is still upon us, even in Florida’s +65 population one has to wonder how many stocks older Floridians have in the pharmaceutical companies that are killing them? The “wrong” isn’t the fear of pleasure… The wrong is in pretending there is wrong with psychoactive marijuana while reaping benefits from prohibition from corrupt bureaucracies, to illegal campaign donations to hidden investments in stocks from companies that would suffer financial loss from competing with legally regulated domestic cannabis industries.
        The fear of pleasure is feigned.
        The deceipt of prohibition depends on the miseducation of American consumers.

    10. Herbalist says:

      Getting high on weed is not what they think!!!

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