Theresa May should listen to Portugal about drug policy

A recent Channel 4 programme looked into the possible benefits of drugs for medicinal purposes. Do we need to have a more liberal approach to drugs in the medical community?

Is Britain moving towards less crime and less punishment?

Lee Jenkins and Derek Van de Ver,

Home Secretary Theresa May has ordered a study into the bold drug policies adopted by one of our European partners, but it’s not weed happy Amsterdam May she has in mind, but rather…Portugal.

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How well has drug decriminalisation worked in Portugal?

Drug decriminalisation has been bouncing around British politics for a while: The Green Party fully support treating substance abusers as patients, not criminals, and the ambiguous Lib Dems, fully support the idea of a royal commission. The Home Affairs Select Committee has been investigating decriminalisation for over a year, recognising the good effects it has had, and that drugs and drug related issues in the UK are a big problem. They sent a team to Portugal, a country which decriminalised – not legalised – all substances in 2001.

Since July 1st 2001, in Portugal, the use of all drugs, from marijuana, cocaine and right up to heroin, has been completely legal, though penalties remain for dealing. When the audacious policy was introduced, there were dire predictions that Lisbon would quickly turn into a drug haven, and that drug use among the young would sky rocket. But thirteen years on neither of those fears have been realised.

Possession and distribution are still illegal. Though even there, a nuanced policy has been adopted: Distribution is treated as a criminal offence, but possession cases are judged in specialist courts, overseen by drug experts, social workers and psychiatrists. Drug users are categorised as suffering from a diseases, not as criminals. This paradigm shift opened up a tranche of methods to free people from their addiction.

As an added benefit, drug related diseases, such as STD’s have also reduced, often at an even greater rate than drug usage rates themselves. This is attributed to the fact that people can seek help without fear of legal ramifications. According to Joao Goulao, President of the Institute of Drugs and Drugs Addiction, of the nearly 40,000 people currently being treated, “the vast majority of problematic users are today supported by a system that does not treat them as delinquents but as sick people.”

A 2011 report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that drug statistics in Portugal are far below the European average, most consistently lower than in European countries which have adopted a hard-line approach to drug use.

The results weren’t just in private. Within five years of decriminalisation, the number of deaths from street drug overdoses dropped from around 400 to 290 annually, and drug usethe number of new HIV cases caused by using dirty needles to inject heroin, cocaine and other illegal substances plummeted from nearly 1,400 in 2000 to about 400 in 2006.

By treating patients rather than punishing criminals, the burden on the tax payer is also substantially reduced. Traditionally, fear of prison drove addicts underground, often committing crimes to fund their habit. Crimes then needed to be investigated, criminals needed to be caught, processed and incarcerated. This is expensive. One then also has to consider how many people go into prison on non-drug related charges, but come out as addicts; addicts in a country geared up to punish rather than cure.

The counter argument is the ‘ton of bricks’ approach, often advocated by social conservatives,  whereby a strong deterrence of lengthy jail time is the key to preventing drug usage. Of all the Western nations, the US probably has the strictest approach to drugs, even allowing for variations among the states. In fact more than half of America’s federal inmates are in prison on drug convictions.

The U.S. has 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. That’s not just many more than in most other developed countries but seven to ten times as many. Japan has 63 per 100,000, Germany has 90, France has 96, South Korea has 97, and Britain–with a rate among the highest–has 153
Yet the wide gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world is relatively recent. In 1980 the U.S.’s prison population was about 150 per 100,000 adults. It has more than quadrupled since then. What changed was the war on drugs. Drug convictions went from 15 inmates per 100,000 adults in 1980 to 148 in 1996, an almost tenfold increase. And 4 of 5 of those arrests were simply for possession.

This approach has not worked. The figures speak for themselves. Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

Drug use is a problem in Britain, and there is no silver bullet to resolve it. But every major study on the subject shows that treatment, rather than punishment, results in lower reoffending rates and improved public health, with the biggest losers being the dealers who see their market shrink, and their associated criminal enterprises shrivel through lack of cash and drug addicted manpower.


This has been realised abroad, as Portugal’s main aims have been achieved, and it’s obvious that the UK can benefit from lessons learned from Lisbon. Cities like Glasgow struggle with a homelessness and crime problem largely linked to drugs, among other things. Cocaine use in the UK is one of the highest in the world. The stigma relating to drugs is another big thing that has been targeted in Portugal and something that needs to be done in the UK. It’s very hard to get a job if the employer knows you have an addiction problem. We need to accept that people are always likely to take drugs, and that is not necessarily a moral problem. People need to know how to do it safely and not endanger others around them. If they seek help for their problem, it should be freely available, and it should not affect other areas of their lives. The Portuguese system ensures people who want help, seek it, and its results show that it’s getting people out of addiction. The Home Affairs Select Committee and other specialist groups are clearly in favour of learning about other systems and adopting the successful measures. It’s time the Home Secretary put aside outdated views and did what is in the national interest.

However, the major stumbling block to reform is not logistical or even judicial, but psychological. For decades British politics has pledged to get ever tougher on drugs. Theresa May now has an opportunity to steer Britain on a path that would see a British drug policy based on reason and evidence, rather than fear and emotion.


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