'This Is Working': Portugal, 12 Years after†Decriminalizing Drugs

By Wiebke Hollersen

Part 2: 'Drug Users Aren't Criminals, They're Sick'

These were the conditions in the country at the point when the Portuguese government convened an anti-drug commission composed of 11 experts, including Goul„o. Most of the members of the commission were not politicians.

"Drug users aren't criminals, they're sick," Goul„o says. Not everyone agrees -- Pinto Coelho, for example. But the anti-drug commission quickly agreed on this position, which formed the basis for Portugal's experiment in dealing with drug users without dealing in deterrents. Goul„o repeats that statement often, as do members of his staff within the anti-drug program, as well as doctors at state-run drug clinics. More surprising is that a Lisbon police commissioner, whose officers spend their days searching for drugs, says it too.

The logical extension of this statement is that people who are not criminals should not be treated as criminals. They should not be arrested, put on trial or thrown in jail. The punishment for drug possession in Portugal prior to decriminalization was up to a year in prison.

The Portuguese experiment has been in action since Law 30/2000 went into effect nearly 12 years ago, and Goul„o's staff is currently calculating how much money the country's judicial system has saved, in its courts and prisons, now that it no longer has to process individuals the police catch with a few grams of drugs.

"The police still search people for drugs," Goul„o points out. Hashish, cocaine, ecstasy -- Portuguese police still seize and destroy all these substances.

Before doing so, though, they first weigh the drugs and consult the official table with the list of 10-day limits. Anyone possessing drugs in excess of these amounts is treated as a dealer and charged in court. Anyone with less than the limit is told to report to a body known as a "warning commission on drug addiction" within the next 72 hours.

The Second Time Brings Consequences

In Lisbon, for example, the local drug addiction commission is housed on the first floor of an unremarkable office building. The idea is that no one should feel uncomfortable about being seen here. A 19-year-old in a white polo shirt waits in one room. Police caught him over the weekend with about a gram of hashish. A social worker has already questioned him for half an hour and learned that he attended vocational training at an agricultural school, lives with his parents and smokes pot now and then. This was the first time he was caught in possession of drugs.

"Social user, no risk factors present," the social worker notes.

Next, a psychologist and a lawyer speak to the young man. They want to know if he's aware of the dangers of cannabis.

"Yeah, yeah, from school," he says. "We had a class on prevention."

As long as he isn't caught again within the next three months, his case will be closed. "We won't inform anyone that you were here and this won't go on your record," the lawyer explains. "But if it happens a second time, there are serious consequences."

But later, asked to explain these consequences in more detail, nothing comes to her mind that sounds particularly serious. A couple days of community service, perhaps. The commission can also impose fines, but the lawyer says it doesn't like to do so for teenagers. The fines are likewise not intended for people the commission determines to be addicts -- they're already paying to maintain their habit. "Our most important duty is to invite people to participate in rehab," she explains. Lisbon police send around 1,500 people to the commission each year, which averages out to less than five a day. Seventy percent of these cases concern marijuana. Those who fail to turn up receive a couple of reminders, but coercion is not an intended part of this system.

Decriminalization, Not Legalization

Warnings, reminders and invitations to rehab -- it seems Portugal's war on drugs is a gentle one. "Humanistic and pragmatic" is how Jo„o Goul„o describes the new program. It is based on decriminalization, which should not be confused with legalization. Portugal considered that path too, but ultimately decided not to take things quite that far.

When Portugal's parliament was debating the proposed Law 30/2000, representatives of right-wing parties declared that planes would start arriving in the country daily, full of people looking for an easy opportunity to pump themselves full of drugs. Our entire country will become a drug-ridden slum, these parties said. The left-wing parties in parliament held a majority, though.

Goul„o sits in his office and pages through charts, tables and graphs that are just some of the great quantity of data his team has collected over the years.

The data show, among other things, that the number of adults in Portugal who have at some point taken illegal drugs is rising. At the same time, though, the number of teenagers who have at some point taken illegal drugs is falling. The number of drug addicts who have undergone rehab has also increased dramatically, while the number of drug addicts who have become infected with HIV has fallen significantly. What, though, do these numbers mean? With what exactly can they be compared? There isn't a great deal of data from before the experiment began. And, for example, the number of adults who have tried illegal drugs at some point in their lives is increasing in most other countries throughout Europe as well.

Running Out of Money

"We haven't found some miracle cure," Goul„o says. Still, taking stock after nearly 12 years, his conclusion is, "Decriminalization hasn't made the problem worse."

At the moment, Goul„o's greatest concern is the Portuguese government's austerity policies in the wake of the euro crisis. Decriminalization is pointless, he says, without being accompanied by prevention programs, drug clinics and social work conducted directly on the streets. Before the euro crisis, Portugal spent €75 million ($98 million) annually on its anti-drug programs. So far, Goul„o has only seen a couple million cut from his programs, but if the crisis in the country grows worse, at some point there may no longer be enough money.

It is simply by chance that the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has its headquarters in Lisbon. Frank Zobel works here, analyzing various approaches to combating drugs, and he says he can observe "the greatest innovation in this field" right outside his office door.

No drug policy, Zobel says, can genuinely prevent people from taking drugs -- at least, he is not familiar with any model that works this way. As for Portugal, Zobel says, "This is working. Drug consumption has not increased severely. There is no mass chaos. For me as an evaluator, that's a very good outcome."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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1. Silence is not an option
gartvalenc 03/28/2013
As a European citizen who looks in horror at the heinous consequences Prohibition and the so-called War on Drugs policies have had on drug producing and transit countries, in particular Latin American ones, I cannot help but feel ashamed by the total lack of support shown so far by European countries for the call made by sitting Latin American presidents to engage in an open debate to find alternatives to current drugs policies. Why have we not heard a single word of encouragement, let alone support, from European countries that have ďquasi legalisedĒ their demand for, as well as their domestic supply of, drugs? How can we explain the silence of countries such as the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, among many others, which have de jure or de facto depenalised or decriminalised the personal consumption of some drugs? Or the silence of countries that allow users to grow a number of marijuana plants in their homes and for their own consumption, or tolerate the operation of so called ďcannabis social clubsĒ, or authorise the cultivation of marijuana to supply dispensaries where consumption on medical grounds is allowed? I do not have any doubts that harm reduction programmes, decriminalisation or depenalisation of the demand for drugs are sensible and necessary policies. But if we were serious about tackling the so-called drug problem, we should be accompanying those policies regarding the demand with equally sensible policies towards the supply of drugs coming from Latin Americaóor from any other part of the world for that matter. It is disgraceful to see that while Latin America is trying to promote the discussion of current and alternative drug policies, we behave in the most cowardly fashion: we remain in silence. Our mutism is totally inexcusable, for in the final analysis the onus is on us, drug consuming countries in the developed world. We should be the ones promoting the Legalisation & Regulation of the supply. We should be the ones making all the noises calling for a change in the national and international legislation on drugs. We should be the ones spearheading the movement seeking the end of Prohibition and the War on Drugs, and the regulation of the production and distribution of all drugs. Gart Valenc Twitter: @gartvalenc
2. A Resounding Success or A Disastrous Failure?
gartvalenc 03/28/2013
To the best of my knowledge Hughes, C.E. & A. Stevens paper: "A Resounding Success or A Disastrous Failure - Portugal Decriminalisation of Illicit Drugs - 2012" provides the most impartial analysis of Portugal's decriminalisation policies. This paper and others by the same authors can be download from here: http://bit.ly/L32cT8 Gart Valenc Twitter: @gartvalenc
3. If this is working, then why....
lwjr 04/05/2013
If this is working, then why is Portugal going down the economic tubes? Stoned Nation? Don't drink the koolaid.
4. Drug quantities
Mango 08/24/2013
If five grams is the legal limit for hashish, then why did a 19-year old get detained for only one gram?
5. Only thing worse than drugs is the war on drugs.
benvan04 02/06/2014
The only thing more stupid than drugs is the war on drugs. Constitutional freedoms allow me to stick in my mouth or in my veins anything I like, as long as I am the only victim of my own stupidity. Freedom means, free to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, invest money into hopeless enterprises, or just be plain stupid. Why a war on drugs? You remember what happened to the war on Alcohol in the USA. A war on drugs turns a million idiots into a million criminals. A war on drugs makes drugs too expensive, so the million idiot criminals now have to resort to theft and or prostitution to support their habit. The war on drugs begets not only criminal users, but also criminal pushers, criminal mules, criminal drug lords and corrupt police. Portugal has become the example to the world. No war on drugs, and yet no increase in drug addiction problems. Hats off to Portugal.
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