Analysis, Blog Posts, Commentary

U.S. Delegation Traveled to Portugal to Learn From Country’s Groundbreaking Drug Decriminalization Policy

Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon, Portugal (Photograph: sean pavone/123RF)
Washington, DC—(ENEWSPF)—April 27, 2018
By: Tony Newman

Last month, Drug Policy Alliance’s Grants, Partnerships and Special Projects team, led by senior director, asha bandele, organized an historic delegation of advocates and journalists who traveled to Lisbon, Portugal to understand how that nation disrupted its own overdose epidemic in the 1990s, by decriminalizing all drugs in 2001.

Many people who were part of the delegation were among those who have lost children, family members and loved ones to overdose and other harms perpetuated by the US drug war.  Among those in attendance were people who had served years in prison because of drug addiction related to profound trauma, and mothers who had buried their only children–or seen them incarcerated.  They, like the attending journalists, wanted to know how Portugal went from having the highest rate of overdose fatalities in the E.U. to the second lowest? How did they go from having the highest rate of injection drug-transmitted HIV infections in the E.U. to the lowest rate of new HIV infections from intravenous drug use?  How did they reduce their prison population for drug-related offenses by nearly 60 percent–while also reducing the number of young people who use drugs–even as every drug, from marijuana to heroin was decriminalized?

The delegation met with João Goulão, the Portuguese General Director for Intervention on Addictive Behaviors and Dependencies and other government officials directly involved in creating and implementing drug decriminalization; NGO leaders, active drug users and formerly incarcerated people. They visited Taipas, the largest drug treatment center in Lisbon; toured methadone maintenance vans located throughout the city offering an opioid substitute; and shadowed harm reduction street teams that do direct intervention with active IV drug users, including refugees, chronically homeless people, and sex workers.

Below is a compilation of media clips about the trip and our experience in Portugal. Activists with the delegation were from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, North Carolina, Oregon, Colorado and beyond.


What It’s Like for an American Drug Reformer to Go to a Country with a Compassionate System; Who knew governments could actually do good things in the realm of drug policy?  By: Phillip Smith / AlterNet, April 1, 2018

The American activists couldn’t wrap their heads around it. Sitting in a dingy office in a nondescript building in central Lisbon, they were being provided a fine-grained explanation of what happens to people caught with small amounts of drugs in Portugal, which decriminalized the possession of personal use amounts of drugs 17 years ago.

The activists, having lived the American experience, wanted desperately to know when and how the coercive power of the state kicked in, how the drug users were to be punished for their transgressions, even if they had only been hit with an administrative citation, which is what happens to people caught with small quantities of drugs there.

Nuno Capaz was trying to explain. He is Vice Chairman of the Lisbon Dissuasion Commission, the three-member tribunal set up to handle people caught with drugs. He had to struggle mightily to convince the Americans that it wasn’t about punishment, but about personal and public health.

“The first question,” he explained, “is whether this person is a recreational user or an addict.”

If the person is deemed only a recreational user, he may face a fine or a call to community service. If he is deemed an addict, treatment is recommended—but not required.

“But what if they don’t comply?” one of the activists demanded. “Don’t they go to jail then?”

No, they do not. Instead, Capaz patiently explained, they may face sanctions for non-compliance, but those sanctions may be little more than a demand that they regularly present themselves to a hospital or health center for monitoring.

In a later hallway conversation, I asked Capaz about drug users who simply refused to go along or to participate at all. What happens then? I wanted to know.

Capaz shrugged his shoulders. “Nothing,” he said. “I tell them to try not to get caught again.”

Welcome to Portugal. The country’s low-key, non-headline-generating drug policy, based on compassion, public health, and public safety, is a stark contrast with the U.S., as the mind-boggled response of the activists suggests.

Organized by the Drug Policy Alliance and consisting of members of local and national groups working with the drug reform organization, as well as a handful of journalists, the group spent three days in-county last month seeing what an enlightened drug policy looks like. They met with high government officials directly involved in creating and implementing drug decriminalization, toured drug treatment, harm reduction, and mobile methadone maintenance facilities, and heard from Portuguese drug users and harm reduction workers as well.

The Portuguese Model and Its Accomplishments

They had good reason to go to Portugal. After nearly two decades of drug decriminalization, there is ample evidence that the Portuguese model is working well. Treating drug users like citizens who could possibly use some help instead of like criminals to be locked up is paying off by all the standard metrics—as well as by not replicating the thuggish and brutal American-style war on drugs, with all the deleterious and corrosive impacts that has on the communities particularly targeted for American drug law enforcement.

Here, according to independent academic researchers, as well as the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and the European Monitoring Center of Drugs and Drug Abuse, is what the Portuguese have accomplished:

Drug use has not dramatically increased. Rates of past year and past month drug use have not changed significantly or have actually declined since 2001. And Portugal’s drug use rates remain among the lowest in Europe, and well below those in the United States.

Both teen drug use and problematic drug use (people who are dependent or who inject drugs) have declined.

Drug arrests and incarceration are way down. Drug arrests have dropped by 60% (selling drugs remains illegal) and the percentage of prisoners doing time for drug offenses has dropped from 44% to 24%. Meanwhile, the number of people referred to the Dissuasion Commission has remained steady, indicating that no “net-widening” has taken place. And the vast majority of cases that go before the commission are found to be non-problematic drug users and are dismissed without sanction.

More people are receiving drug treatment—and on demand, not by court order. The number of people receiving drug treatment increased by 60% by 2011, with most of them receiving opiate-substitution therapy (methadone). Treatment is voluntary and largely paid for by the national health system.

Drug overdose deaths are greatly reduced. Some 80 people died of drug overdoses in 2001; that number shrunk to just 16 by 2012. That’s an 80% reduction in drug overdose deaths.

Drug injection-related HIV/AIDS infections are greatly reduced. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of new HIV cases shrank from nearly 1,600 to only 78. The number of new AIDS cases declined from 626 to 74.

“We came to the conclusion that the criminal system was not the best suited to deal with this situation,” explained Capaz. “The best option should be referring them to treatment, but we do not force or coerce anyone. If they are willing to go, it’s because they actually want to, so the success rate is really high. We can surely say that decriminalization does not increase drug usage, and that it does not mean legalizing drugs. It’s still illegal to use drugs in Portugal, it’s just not considered a crime. It’s possible to deal with these users outside the criminal system.”

Dr. Joao Goulao, who largely authored the decriminalization law and who is still General Director for Intervention on Addictive Behaviors—the Portuguese “drug czar”—pointed to unquantifiable positives resulting from the move: “The biggest effect,” he said, “has been to allow the stigma of drug addiction to fall, to let people speak clearly and to pursue professional help without fear.”

They Take the Kids!

The American activists know all about fear and stigma. And the cultural disconnect—between a country that treats drug users with compassion and one that seeks to punish them—was on display again when a smaller group of the activists met with Dr. Miguel Vasconcelos, the head psychologist at the Centro Taipa, a former mental hospital that now serves as the country’s largest drug treatment center.

As Dr.Vasconcelos explained the history and practice of drug treatment in Portugal, one of his listeners asked what happened to drug users who were pregnant or had children.

“They take the kids,” Vasconcelos said, smiling. But his smile turned to puzzlement as he saw his listeners reacted with disappointment and dismay.

For the Americans, “they take the kids” meant child protective services swooping in to seize custody of the children of drug-using parents while the parents go to jail.

But that’s not what Vasconcelos meant. After some back and forth, came clarity: “No, I mean they take the kids with them to treatment.”

Once again, the Americans, caught firmly in the mind set of their own punishing society, expected only the worst of the state. But once again, light bulbs came on as they realized it doesn’t have to be like that.

Now that cadre of activists is back home, and they are going to begin to try to apply the lessons they learned in their own states and communities. And although they had some abstract understanding of Portuguese drug decriminalization before they came, their experiences with the concrete reality of it should only serve to strengthen their desire to make our own country a little less like a punitive authoritarian one and bit more like Portugal.

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

asha bandele: Prince could still be alive today if America didn’t shame people for using drugs (Portugal Featured) –– By: Anthony Smith, April 21, 2018


Rhode Island Public Radio

Tackling The Opioid Epidemic: Lessons From Portugal – By: Lynn Arditi, April 3, 2018


The streets of Lisbon, Portugal were once described as littered with syringes. During the 1990s, this southern European country roughly the size of Maine had one of the worst drug epidemics in the world. Today, Portugal boasts one of the lowest rates of overdose deaths in the European Union. How did they do it?

Annajane Yolken, a public health researcher and head of the Providence-based nonprofit Protect Families First, traveled to Portugal to find out. Yolken was part of a national delegation to Portugal in March organized by the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance. She spoke about her experience with Rhode Island Public Radio’s health reporter, Lynn Arditi.


What it’s like for an American drug reformer to go to a country with a compassionate system. Who knew governments could actually do good things in the realm of drug policy? – By: Phillip SmithAlternet, April 20, 2018

La Opinion

Despenalización de las drogas: el modelo de Portugal — Una delegación de activistas angelinos busca informarse sobre la innovadora política europea – By: Virginia Gaglianone, 20 marzo 2018

Pacifica Radio: Drug Truth Network

Dr. Joao Goulao, Portugal’s Drug Czar sits down to a lengthy interview with DTN Reporter Dean Becker, March 30, 2018