Did Portugal really decriminalize drugs? This seems like an obvious answer. In 2001, the European country decriminalized drugs. While possession and use were (and still are) technically illegal, the authorities treat it as a public health issue rather than a criminal offence.
The success of this program has prompted other jurisdictions, such as British Columbia, to try their hand at decriminalization.
However, there are substantial differences between the two. Whereas Portugal has over sixty therapeutic communities designed to eliminate addictive behaviour, British Columbia has zero of these communities.
Instead, the B.C. government is providing a “safe supply” brought to you by large pharmaceutical companies. The same ones that help foster the opioid crisis that requires this “safe supply.”
In B.C., if police catch you with decriminalized drugs, they hand over literature. In Portugal, authorities referred you to a “dissuasion commission.”
So did Portugal really decriminalize drugs? On the surface, yes. But as we experienced with COVID, making something a “public health” issue doesn’t mean you won’t be forced against your will.
Did Portugal Really Decriminalize Drugs?
Since 2001, Portuguese citizens caught with a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use aren’t arrested or given criminal records. Instead, police refer them to a “dissuasion commission” that consists of psychologists, social workers, and legal advisors.
The commission evaluates the individual’s drug use and decides whether they need treatment, education, or advice on reducing their drug use.
As Dr. Julian Somers told CLN, “They’re not saying overcoming addiction means not using drugs anymore. They say overcoming addiction means being socially reintegrated.”
The Portuguese recognized that it wasn’t drug use per se causing social problems. It was the individual’s relationship to drugs.
Cannabis connoisseurs are well aware of how little the pharmacology of the drug matters. When we consume cannabis, some experience joy, euphoria, or creativity. At the same time, others experience paranoia or anxiety. Some are social consumers, while others prefer to use cannabis alone before bed.
Since the Portuguese government accepted this fact about drugs, they were able to craft a decriminalization policy that worked.
But did Portugal really decriminalize drugs? Because decriminalization doesn’t mean anything if a “dissuasion commission” can compel you to behave or act in a certain way.
While the commission can impose fines, they cannot impose jail time or force people into treatment or rehab against their will. But they do confiscate your drugs. And in addition to fines, you may also be penalized with community service.
As opposed to B.C., where they let you keep your drugs and hand you literature, essentially telling you to “Just Say No.”
Has Portugal Succeeded?
In 2001, Portugal’s overdose rates were similar to Europe’s. In the first five years of decriminalization, drug deaths dropped dramatically.
Since then, they’ve been steadily rising. While drug deaths in Portugal remain some of the lowest in the E.U., the overdose trend is similar to the rest of Europe.
Portugal also has some of the lowest drug use in Europe. However, many dispute the data behind Portuguese consumption rates.
Critics of Portugal’s decriminalization also argue that it has failed to address the root causes of drug addiction. Others have argued that it doesn’t go far enough.
Of course, it’s almost impossible to compare one country with another. According to the data, in 2015, there were 33,290 “high-risk” opioid users in Portugal. This is higher than the European average but lower than when Portugal decriminalized in 2001.
So whether Portugal’s decriminalization is successful will depend on your criteria.
But if a public health “dissuasion commission” can impose fines, strongly suggest treatment, or force you to do community service – can it really be said that Portugal decriminalized drugs?
Did Portugal Really Decriminalize Drugs?
Did Portugal really decriminalize drugs? Technically, yes. But not in the sense of decriminalization being synonymous with legalization. And certainly not in the sense that decriminalization will lead to legalization.
Decriminalization in Portugal was a public health policy. And as we learned from COVID, categorizing criminal behaviours as “public health” disorders isn’t always a step in the right direction.
We have centuries of criminal law and customs to draw from. A public health commission is politically biased. It lacks due process, transparency, and lacks procedural safeguards, such as the right to a fair trial or the right to an impartial tribunal.
Addictive behaviour is a mental health issue. Did Portugal really decriminalize drugs? Yes, but drugs weren’t the issue. The issue was demand, not supply. This is what B.C. has failed to understand.
Suppose the only other alternative to criminalization is the authority of public health busybodies. In that case, it’s not evident that decriminalization is the preferred choice.
A better option is to legalize all drugs.