Portugal's Drug Policy

Portugal's Drug Policy

Since the late 1980s, Portugal suffered a heroin epidemic, with an estimated 1% of the population addicted to the drug. In response to the crisis, the government had initially focused on bolstering the criminal justice system with harsher policies and punishments. However, this wasn’t working as it only created a large addicted inmate population. In 2001, the government has instead reformed its drug policy and became the first country to decriminalise the consumption of all drugs.

The Portuguese decriminalisation model focuses on demand-side reduction. The model is centred on the three  key ideas: that drug use is not inherently evil, that it is impossible to eradicate all drug use, and that people use drugs for different reasons and punitive policies are unethical and ineffectual. Under the this model, people in possession of drugs will have their substances confiscated and they are referred to a Dissuasion Commission. Depending on the user’s dependency on the drug, they will either have their case dismissed or administrative sanctions (fines, group therapy, social work) will be applied. Although treatments imposed by the court are never mandated, increased support for harm reduction as well as enhancing availability of treatment has helped to decrease drug use. For example, the government funds social work agencies to engage with people using drugs in the street and distributing sterile syringes, hygiene materials, condoms and offering information about treatment and harm reduction.

Portugal saves the harsh punishments for those involved on the supply side – drug traffickers face a sentence of up to 12 years depending on the substance type. If there death or serious bodily harm occurs during the arrest process, the maximum sentence is 25 years.


Portugal’s drug policy has been very successful. Its rate of HIV infection dropped from 104.2 new cases per million in 2000 to only 4.2 cases per million in 2015. Furthermore, Portugal went from having one of the highest drug use rates in Europe to one lower than all other countries in the EU. Additionally, drug-induced deaths have decreased by over 80% after decriminalisation, which stands at 5 times lower than the average EU rate.


Photo by LEMUR on Unsplash

[1] Drug Policy Alliance (2018). Drug decriminalisation in Portugal. Retrieved from http://www.drugpolicy.org/sites/default/files/dpa-drug-decriminalization-portugal-health-human-centered-approach_0.pdf

[2] Susana, F. (2017). Portugal’s radical drugs policy is working. Why hasn’t the world copied it? Guardian Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/dec/05/portugals-radical-drugs-policy-is-working-why-hasnt-the-world-copied-it

[3] Naina, B. (2018). Want to Win the War on Drugs? Portugal might have the answer. TIME. Retrieved from https://time.com/longform/portugal-drug-use-decriminalization/