In July 2001, the Portuguese parliament passed a law decriminalizing possession, acquisition, and use of small quantities of psychoactive substances, including marijuana. For years before that, Portugal had been know for its severe drug problems and its unsuccessful and harsh “war on drugs” policy.
Since then, the policy focus has shifted primarily to educating the population about drugs and taking measures aimed at preventing drug addiction. In Portugal, citizens are free to possess up to 25 grams (a little less than one ounce) of cannabis without fear of being punished by the law. What is more, much more dangerous substances like methamphetamine, MDMA, cocaine, and even heroin are allowed.
This may seem like quite a strange approach to policy-making at first, especially taking into account the fact that Portugal has had its share of drug problems. In fact, over 100,000 people in Portugal—a rather small nation of 10 million people—were addicted to heroin. Heroin itself is an incredibly addictive and dangerous drug, yet the problem was further complicated by an HIV epidemic due to shared usage of needles. The government of the republic faced a real national crisis and had to find a new approach to solving this long-standing problem.
Eventually, lawmakers in Portugal decided to formulate their new policy based on a founding belief that a drug addict is not a criminal but a sick person that requires medical care and treatment. At first, the idea of decriminalizing all drugs seemed like a desperate last-resort attempt to solve the problem. Yet, surprisingly for many, it worked better than most people could have anticipated. And we are not talking about some subjective opinions on the matter: since 2001, the number of people addicted to heroin has decreased by more than 60 percent. As for the number of deaths resulting from drug abuse, the results were even better—the total number of fatalities decreased by three-quarters. With drugs becoming completely decriminalized, the total number of people using any kind of drugs has actually decreased, both among minors and adults.
While the example of Portugal clearly demonstrates that the idea of leading a war on drugs only sounds like a tough but necessary solution but is actually inefficient to the point of being completely ineffective, it is important to note that decriminalization does not mean legalization. That is, while buyers and users of drugs do not face any penalties, sellers and producers do. This applies to marijuana as well. Theoretically, it may be legal to grow marijuana for your own use in Portugal; in practice, it is usually quite difficult to prove that your garden is intended only for personal use. Therefore, people in Portugal can still go to prison for cannabis cultivation.
Being a shining example of progressive drug policy, Portugal should really think about full legalization of cannabis—a substance that cannot be compared to heroin (or, for that matter, alcohol) with regard to its health effects. A vast body of cannabis research suggests that there is little reason to keep cannabis a controlled substance like LSD, cocaine or heroin. We at WeedLex urge the Portuguese government to commemorate the anniversary of their successful drug policy by starting a public discussion on full legalization of cannabis.