Portugal's Drug Laws: A Case Study in Decrimilization

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Recently, we’ve been speaking a lot about the criminal justice system and drug use. With the Obama Administration’s new Drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske, change certainly seems to be in the air and the North American stance on illicit drugs is coming under scrutiny. After twenty-some-odd years, the ‘War on Drugs’ may finally be coming to a close.

Consider this: the US has the harshest, most punitive, drug laws in the world. The US also has the highest rates of cocaine and marijuana use in the world. This is no coincidence.

Portugal, as recently reported by Time Magazine, re-focused their drug laws in 2001 to treatment over punishment. Working with the hypothesis that a punitive system does nothing more than drive drug addicts underground and is unnecessarily expensive, Portugal abolished all criminal penalties for drug possession across all drugs. Instead of jail time, treatment is offered.

Those found guilty of possession of small amounts of drugs stand before a panel (consisting of a social worker, psychologist, and legal adviser) who determine the best treatment option for the individual.

Studies shows, across all metrics, that this treatment-centric approach is far more successful:


  • Portugal had some of the highest levels of hard drug use in Europe


  • drug use among teens decreased significantly
  • rates of new HIV cases from intravenous drug use decreased significantly
  • rate of people seeking treatment more than doubled
  • Portugal has the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use of people over 15 in the EU
  • the number of deaths due to overdose decreased by more than half
  • the number of people in methadone and buprenorphine treatment increased to over 14,000
  • funding to treatment programs increased, stemming from money saved
  • law enforcement able to zero-in on high-level drug dealers and activities surrounding large amounts of drugs

“Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success. It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research (as reported by Time Magazine).

As history has shown us time and time again, prohibition is not a successful approach. Creating deviant behavior merely divides groups, pushing illicit behavior further underground and impeding pathways with which to seek out help and treatment. Addicts are made to be criminals; addiction is falsely defined as a crime, not a condition.

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Sobriety Foundation

Portugal's Drug Laws: A Case Study in Decrimilization

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