03/27/2013 11:32 AM

'This Is Working'

Portugal, 12 Years after Decriminalizing Drugs

By Wiebke Hollersen

Twelve years ago, Portugal eliminated criminal penalties for drug users. Since then, those caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin go unindicted and possession is a misdemeanor on par with illegal parking. Experts are pleased with the results.

Before he got involved in the global war on drugs, João Goulão was a family physician with his own practice in Faro, on Portugal's Algarve coast. Arriving in his small office in Lisbon, the 58-year-old tosses his jacket aside, leaving his shirt collar crooked. He looks a little tired from the many trips he's taken lately -- the world wants to know exactly how the experiment in Portugal is going. Goulão is no longer able to accept all the invitations he receives. He adds his latest piece of mail to the mountain of papers on his desk.

From this office, where the air conditioning stopped working this morning, Goulão keeps watch over one of the world's largest experiments in drug policy.

One gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, 25 grams of marijuana leaves or five grams of hashish: These are the drug quantities one can legally purchase and possess in Portugal, carrying them through the streets of Lisbon in a pants pocket, say, without fear of repercussion. MDMA -- the active ingredient in ecstasy -- and amphetamines -- including speed and meth -- can also be possessed in amounts up to one gram. That's roughly enough of each of these drugs to last 10 days.

These are the amounts listed in a table appended to Portugal's Law 30/2000. Goulão participated in creating this law, which has put his country at the forefront of experimental approaches to drug control. Portugal paved a new path when it decided to decriminalize drugs of all kinds.

"We figured perhaps this way we would be better able get things under control," Goulão explains. "Criminalization certainly wasn't working all that well."

Much the Same as a Parking Violation

As part of its war on drugs, Portugal has stopped prosecuting users. The substances listed in the Law 30/2000 table are still illegal in Portugal -- "Otherwise we would have gotten into trouble with the UN," Goulão explains -- but using these drugs is nothing more than a misdemeanor, much the same as a parking violation.

Why set the limits on these drugs at 10 days' worth of use, though?

"Well, it's a limit, which by its nature is arbitrary," Goulão says. Now the head of Portugal's national anti-drug program and an important figure in Portuguese health policy, he still talks like an easygoing family doctor. Arrayed on Goulão's windowsill are photographs, including one of him with Richard Branson, the British billionaire and hot air balloon operator. Another shows Goulão with the king of Spain. Both these men have received personal briefings on Portugal's new drug program from Goulão.

"At the point when we designed the law, we had hardly any data to draw on," Goulão relates. "We weren't the least bit certain this would work."

The question at stake: How can a government keep its citizens from taking dangerous drugs? One way is to crack down on those who provide the drugs -- the cartels, the middle men and the street dealers. Another approach is to focus on the customers -- arresting them, trying them and imprisoning them. Legal prosecution -- as both a control mechanism and a deterrent -- is the chosen approach for most governments.

Giving Up on the Idea of a Drug-Free World

"It's important that we prevent people from buying drugs, and taking drugs, using every method at our disposal," says Manuel Pinto Coelho, 64, the last great opponent of Goulão's experiment. Pinto Coelho wants his country to return to normalcy, in the form of the tough war on drugs that much of the rest of the world conducts.

Pinto Coelho is a doctor too. He has run rehab centers and written books about addiction. Now he's at odds with former colleagues and with "the system," as he says.

His greatest concern is that his country has given up on the idea of a drug-free world. How, Pinto Coelho asks, is it possible to keep young people away from drugs, when everyone knows exactly how many pills can legally be carried around? He still believes deterrents are the best form of prevention and that cold turkey withdrawal is the best treatment method. He is also fighting the extensive methadone program Portugal began as part of its drug policy reform, which now provides tens of thousands of heroin addicts with this substitute drug.

These days, Pinto Coelho earns his living running diet clinics, but he spends his evenings writing letters and drafting presentations on his country's "absurd drug experiment." He travels to symposiums to warn the rest of the world of its dangers. At home in Portugal, his critical perspective has made him an outsider, but he says he's been well received abroad. As if offering proof, he shows a fact sheet issued by the United States Office of National Drug Control Policy, a brief and skeptically worded report on the Portuguese experiment.

The Freedom that Overwhelmed the Country

When João Goulão wants to explain why it is Portugal in particular that came up with the idea to stop prosecuting drug users, he starts with the country's Carnation Revolution.

In 1974, Portugal broke free from nearly 50 years of military dictatorship, a political shift symbolized by the carnations soldiers stuck in the muzzles of their rifles."Suddenly, the drugs were there," Goulão says, as Portuguese returning from the country's overseas colonies brought marijuana with them. Goulão, too, says he smoked pot back then. He was in his early twenties and "drugs promised us freedom."

But it was a freedom that soon overwhelmed the country. When Goulão established his doctor's practice in Faro, he soon found himself approached by parents whose children were no longer just smoking joints, but had moved on to heroin. Sometimes the children came to him as well, and Goulão had no idea how to treat them. When the first state-run rehab clinic opened in Lisbon, Goulão attended a training course there.

At that point, he says, the heroin epidemic was just beginning.

In the 1980s, cheap heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan began flooding Europe. Portugal was not the only country affected, but Goulão says his nation was hit particularly hard, because people here had little idea how to handle drugs. "We were naïve," he says.

The number of people taking illegal drugs in Portugal was low compared with other countries, but of those who did consume drugs, an unusually high number of them fell into the category that specialists in this field refer to as "problem drug users."

From the pile of papers on his desk, Goulão unearths a copy of a speech he recently gave in Paris. Flipping through it, he finds the figure he's looking for: 100,000. This is the number of severely drug-addicted people in Portugal at the height of the epidemic, in the mid-1990s. Portugal's total population at the time was just under 10 million. The number of drug addicts who became infected with HIV was also considerably higher than in most other countries.

A drug slum formed in Lisbon, at the edge of a neighborhood known as Casal Ventoso. Here junkies slept in shacks or in the garbage, in extremely poor conditions. "They shot up on the street, and they died on the street," Goulão says. Anyone in Portugal could observe this phenomenon -- on TV, in newspaper pictures or even from the nearby highway.

'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 Goulão. Most of the members of the commission were not politicians.

"Drug users aren't criminals, they're sick," Goulão 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. Goulão 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 Goulão'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," Goulão 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 João Goulão 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.

Goulão 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," Goulão says. Still, taking stock after nearly 12 years, his conclusion is, "Decriminalization hasn't made the problem worse."

At the moment, Goulão'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, Goulão 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


Related SPIEGEL ONLINE links:

All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH