In July 1974, I hitch-hiked through the Algarve along the beautiful southern coastline of Portugal. One evening I arrived at a small fishing village as night fell.
People Power in Lisbon, 1974
Like the rest of the country, that patch of Portugal was in the throes of momentus change. Autocracy dating from the 1930s had been overthrown earlier the same year. Politics were in flux. For the first time in decades, the left was in the ascendancy. The spirit of change – and new possibilities – was in the air.
I was equipped with a bag to ‘sleep rough’ if necessary, but decided to ask a local if he knew somewhere cheap to stay. There weren’t any hostels or cheap hotels, but in broken English and a little French he outlined a solution, which eventually led to one of the most pleasant surprises of my trip. I was doubtful, but he insisted. So I followed him to the local Police Station.
After introductions, a courteous policeman welcomed me to his domain and assigned me a private cell for the night. It was sparse, but clean – rather like a monk’s quarters. He served breakfast in the morning: the perfect finale to a random act of kindness that left me fond of Portugal ever since.
So it comes as no surprise to me that the Portuguese are in the forefront of 21st Century law reform on at least one crucial social issue. Who else? The Portuguese are not lawless, but they seem to keep red tape in perspective.
Cure not crime
In July 2001, Portugal took a bold step in drug law reform, decriminalizing all recreational drugs. This was not full legalization. Large-scale production and trading of illegal drugs is still prohibited. But personal possession – of cannabis, heroin, cocaine and other favorites of the US/Western ‘War on Drugs’ – was put beyond the criminal law. In Portugal, no-one goes to jail anymore for possession of recreational drugs. The War, in effect, is over.
“Decriminalisation” comprises removal of a conduct or activity from the sphere of criminal law. Prohibition remains the rule, but sanctions for use (and its preparatory acts) no longer fall within the framework of the criminal law.
Journalist and author Glen Greenwald has just completed a study of the Portuguese experiment seven year on. Published by the libertarian Cato Institute, it was discussed recently by Greenwald in his Salon.com column and most recently, by the Financial Times. It deserves a wide readership.
Greenwald’s paper explains how Portugal’s post-decriminilization laws work in practice. He provides comparative data from several countries over recent years indicating the policy’s relative success. None of the fearful predictions of critics prior to decriminalization have come to pass. Several trends indicate positive benefits. Not surprisingly, the policy is increasingly popular within Portugal and apparently no major political parties seek to overturn it.
This is an important study. The ‘War on Drugs’ is a hideous failed policy that must be abandoned. Portugal shows us a way out of the self-induced bad trip. We should all take note.
In the mid 1970s, the best a young hitch-hiker in Europe could expect from local cops was to be left alone. Portugal did better, at least for me. Now it’s doing a lot better on recreational drugs…
War is not inevitable, but once a war machine gets rolling its momentum is hard to arrest. Declaring peace takes creativity, lateral thought and courage – as well as good will.
None of the fears promulgated by opponents of Portuguese decriminalization has come to fruition, whereas many of the benefits predicted by drug policymakers from instituting a decriminalization regime have been realized. While drug addiction, usage, and associated pathologies continue to skyrocket in many EU states, those problems—in virtually every relevant category—have been either contained or measurably improved within Portugal since2001. In certain key demographic segments, drug usage has decreased in absolute terms in the decriminalization framework even as usage across the EU continues to increase, including in those states that continue to take the hardest line in criminalizing drug possession and usage.
By freeing its citizens from the fear of prosecution and imprisonment for drug usage, Portugal has dramatically improved its ability to encourage drug addicts to avail themselves of treatment. The resources that were previously devoted to prosecuting and imprisoning drug addicts are now available to provide treatment programs to addicts. Those developments, along with Portugal’s shift to a harm-reduction approach, have dramatically improved drug-related social ills, including drug-caused mortalities and drug-related disease transmission. Ideally, treatment programs would be strictly voluntary, but Portugal’s program is certainly preferable to criminalization.
The Portuguese have seen the benefits of decriminalization, and therefore there is no serious political push in Portugal to return to a criminalization framework. Drug policy-makers in the Portuguese government are virtually unanimous in their belief that decriminalization has enabled a far more effective approach to managing Portugal’s addiction problems and other drug-related afflictions. Since the available data demonstrate that they are right, the Portuguese model ought to be carefully considered by policymakers around the world.