This year marks 20 years since one of the most radical justice reforms in European history. In 2001, Portugal became one of the first countries to decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use and take a public health approach to addiction. Two decades on, it sets an example for the UK and our unending ‘war on drugs’, which has led only to high spending, overpolicing, and record overdose deaths.
Portugal in the 1980s and ’90s was in crisis. The international drugs trade had increasingly made a foothold in the country in the decades following its reopening after the Carnation Revolution: one in ten people were heroin users, and overdose deaths were through the roof.
The heroin epidemic was related to AIDS infection rates reaching a record high, with some 2,000 new cases recorded per year (for context, the UK, despite being five times the size of Portugal, recorded around 3,000 a year in the same period). 45% of Portugal’s HIV infections were from intravenous drug users forced to share needles.
Years of following a similar anti-drugs policy to the US and UK had failed to make any impact, so in 2001, Portugal’s Socialist Party Prime Minister António Guterres (now the UN Secretary General) approved the decriminalisation of drug use.
That meant that owning enough drugs for personal use was no longer a criminal offence, but a civil one – like a parking ticket. If you’re caught, you can face a small fine, or, far more commonly, can be referred to addiction services or one of the ‘Dissuasion Commissions’ that try to help people stop using drugs.
The reforms didn’t stop there. The government matched decriminalisation with a wide-ranging, fully funded public health programme to reduce drug harm, comprising everything from needle exchanges in at-risk neighbourhoods and more rehab centres and methadone vans to safe consumption units and safe drug testing sites.
Twenty years later, the results are astounding. Overdose deaths have fallen by as much as 85% (before a slight rise after the financial crash). HIV infection rates overall dropped by 96% – largely made up by a huge drop in drug-related transmission.
Multiple studies have found little to no increase in overall drug usage in the country, while the use of ‘problematic’ drugs has seen a sharp decline. One government estimate suggested a 75% decrease in the number of Portuguese people using heroin.
Reducing the stigma around drugs has also meant that getting support for addiction is easier and less painful for those who use them. Meanwhile, as the UK and US spend billions fighting the war on drugs annually, Portugal spends in the tens of millions, 90% of which goes on healthcare and rehabilitation rather than policing.
That’s not to say Portugal’s approach to drugs is some magic bullet that will deal with any of the underlying causes at play. We know, for example, that there’s a strong link between drug overdoses and poverty and a lack of government welfare, and lifting people out of poverty would effectively treat the underlying causes. But on the simplest level, decriminalisation saves lives.
Compare that to the UK. In recent years, the government has thrown as much as £1.6 billion a year into the endless pit of anti-drugs policing, with marijuana offences alone accounting for as much as 1.5 million working hours for the police.
And we have nothing to show for it. In 2019 (the most recent data available), drug overdoses in England and Wales killed more people than at any point since records began. Our annual overdose death rate is now eleven times that of Portugal. In Scotland, the drug death rate is the worst in Europe by a massive margin, after the SNP cut just under 55% of the country’s addiction services budget.
When anything close to decriminalisation is trialled in the UK, it works. In Durham, the pioneering Checkpoint scheme, which effectively decriminalised low-level drug possession and pushed those using them towards social and medical support, was found to have engaged otherwise hard-to-reach drug users, reduced re-offending rates, and kept down costs for the justice system.
We also can’t ignore the fact that the ‘war on drugs’ has served as the justification for a harmful expansion of policing powers, a weight borne by ethnic minorities across the UK. In London, 60-80% of all stop-and-searches are justified as part of a search for drugs. So while drugs reform won’t solve any of the structural racism in UK police forces, it would be a step in the right direction.
Whatever your beliefs about the ethics of drug use, or the idea of legalising illicit drugs, it’s undeniable that something has to change. Under our current system, we are wilfully letting thousands of people die because policymakers refuse to adapt.
Portugal’s example is pragmatic policymaking in action: these reforms to the justice system not only save lives and reduce addiction rates, but reduce the burden on the criminal justice system, and save money that can then be redirected elsewhere. And that’s leaving out its countless social and economic knock-on effects.
Yet decriminalisation is still greeted with hostility by those in power. While Sadiq Khan announced plans to explore the feasibility of decriminalising cannabis if he’s re-elected as London mayor in May, his stance is the exception, not the rule. Keir Starmer has been disturbingly vocal in his opposition to any changes to drug laws, and Downing Street has said it is ‘absolutely’ against any moves to legalise cannabis.
As countries like Norway move towards complete decriminalisation, and even America, our fellow leader in the war on drugs, legalises marijuana in a huge number of states, we’re still too afraid to even have the conversation. Every single day, that refusal to act comes with a cost in human lives.