Portugal’s Approach

The Challenge

Portugal’s policy and outcomes are nuanced and complex. Today, among Americans ages 12 and older, 0.3 percent use heroin. But back in the 1980s, a whopping 10 percent of Portuguese had a serious heroin problem.

Things got so bad that in 2001 Portugal took a radical step and became the first country in the world to decriminalize the possession and consumption of all illicit substances. Ever since, that tiny European country has been held up as the poster child for successful drug policy by the progressive forces advocating drug decriminalization, harm reduction, and legalization.

“There are a lot of myths around the Portuguese Model,” said Dr. Joao Goulao, the drug czar of Portugal. The main one, he said, is that “we just liberalized [drugs]. That ‘You can do whatever you want. You have all the room to develop the behavior you wish.’ That’s not the case.”

4-42The range of the number of people jailed for drug use in Portugal in each of the eight years before they implemented their new policy in 2001. This questions whether the criminal justice side of Portugal’s new law was very different than what was in place before the change.

What to Know

Neither American-style Decriminalization Nor Legalization

Portugal removed drug users from the criminal justice system and moved them to an administrative system led by a panel to determine the needs of the individual user. That does not mean the country decriminalized drugs with little follow-up or legalized drugs, like in Oregon, or legalized drugs, (like some U.S. states have done with marijuana).

In fact, Portugal still arrests individuals who use publicly and requires them to get treatment. Those who refuse treatment go to jail. Open air drug markets are illegal, and drug dealing is not tolerated.

But this hasn’t stopped American legalization advocates from holding up this false perception of Portugal’s model.

Outcomes in Portugal

Regardless of the misconceptions, has Portugal’s model been an unmitigated success? It’s complicated.

“Portugal’s decriminalization drug policy has been cited as proof that softening drug laws does not increase illicit drug use or the consequences of drug use,” according to a white paper issued by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy. “The contention is based primarily on the findings published in…2009 [by the libertarian think tank] Cato Institute… However, it is safe to say that claims by drug legalization advocates regarding the impact of Portugal’s drug policy exceeds the existing scientific claims.”

Hospitalization in Portugal’s public hospitals for psychotic disorders increased from 24 in 2001—the year the decriminalization law went into effect—to 588 in 2015. And the proportion of patients with concomitant cannabis use disorder rose from 0.87 percent to 10.60 percent. Drug-related deaths seem to have decreased, however.

Oregon’s Model is Already Failing

The misconception about Portugal’s approach directly influenced the passage of the 2020 law that decriminalized possession of small quantities of all drugs in Oregon, the first such sweeping measure in the United States. Unlike Portugal, Oregon’s model, passed through Measure 110, has a negligible treatment component. A recent report found fewer than 0.85% of people falling under the state’s new law were referred to treatment.

Measure 110 “was never designed to promote access to treatment,” said Mike Marshall, head of Oregon Recovers. “They wanted to create decriminalization, and they recognized that they couldn’t win decriminalization without linking it to increased services,” he said of New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which largely funded the Measure 110 campaign.