This year Portugal commemorated the 15th anniversary of its 30/2000 law – the law that decriminalised the use of all drugs for personal use. The law states that the possession of small amounts of for personal use is no longer considered a crime, but a regulatory offence instead.
The reasons behind the move
Portugal suffered from a heroin-epidemic in the mid-1990s, before the new law came into effect. By 1999, nearly 1% of the population was addicted to heroin, and drug-related deaths from HIV were the highest in the European Union.
The number of people dying from overdoses and HIV transmissions via shared needles was on the rise, as were crime rates across the country.
The state of affairs led the government to initiate crisis talks, and ultimately form an anti-drug commission to tackle the problem. That commission recommended the introduction of a band new regime – one which treats drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal law problem, and within that paradigm focuses on education and treatment rather than punishment.
The new law
The new regime started by determining the average 10-day supply of drugs for personal use; whether cannabis, heroin, esctacy or any other prohibited drug.
It decreed that a person found in possession of less than a 10-day supply would be sent to a three-person ‘dissuasion panel’, typically made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker.
That panel could recommend treatment or, in some cases, a minor fine without a criminal record.
Change in perspective
One of 11 experts on the panel was Joao Goulão, a family physician from Faro, located on Portugal’s Algarve Coast. Mr Goulão has been the chief of Portugal’s national anti-drug program since 1997 and helped to shape the new law. He is now chairman of Portugal’s Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction.
“Drug users aren’t criminals, they’re sick,” Mr Goulão has remarked.
Drug manufacture, supply and importation
While habitual users are offered the support they need, drug manufacturers, suppliers and importers continue to face harsh penalties.
There are criminal sanctions for growing a small number of cannabis plants, all the way to severe penalties for suppliers and traffickers.
Despite decriminalising personal drug possession, rates of drug use have not skyrocketed as many predicted.
As this chart shows, drug use increased slightly when measured in 2007 (a trend in line with other, similar countries), but fell thereafter.
By two out of three measures, adult drug use is now lower than it was in 2001, when the new regime was introduced.
“I think harm reduction is not giving up on people,” said Goulão. “I think it is respecting their timings and assuming that even if someone is still using drugs, that person deserves the investment of the state in order to have a better and longer life.”
The number of deaths from drug overdoses has fallen dramatically to just 3 for every million residents. The rates in other countries are 10.2 per million in the Netherlands to 44.6 per million in the U.K., all the way up to 126.8 per million in Estonia. The E.U. average is 17.3 per million.
One of the most startling trends in Portugal is the fall in deaths from HIV and AIDS. In 2001, the country’s drug using population was in the midst of a public health crisis, with rates of HIV and AIDS rapidly increasing.
The emphasis on harm reduction has been instrumental in reversing this trend. As depicted in the chart below, there has been a huge reduction in the number of drug users diagnosed with HIV and AIDS.
The rate of new HIV infection fell dramatically from 1,016 cases to only 56 in 2012.
The Portugese experience demonstrates that decriminalisation does not have the disastrous consequences predicted by conservative detractors for the approach, many of whom have since changed their views.
As the Transform Drug Policy Institute says in its analysis of Portugal’s drug laws, “The reality is that Portugal’s drug situation has improved significantly in several key areas. Most notably, HIV infections and drug-related deaths have decreased, while the dramatic rise in use feared by some has failed to materialise.”
There is no reason other developed countries like Australia could not reap the same benefits.