What Portugal Can Teach Us About The Drug War

America’s policymakers evidently didn’t learn anything from the disaster that was alcohol prohibition. (Jeff Sessions clearly didn’t!)

In fact, for a country whose citizens constantly assert a belief in individual liberty, we rank right up there on the forced prudery scale. As any historian or political scientist can confirm, America’s legal landscape is littered with religious moralism masquerading as public safety.

When it came to drug use, and our incredibly expensive and demonstrably ineffective drug war, moralism joined hands with racism, first against Asians and Opium, and then against African-Americans, as Michelle Alexander copiously documented in The New Jim Crow. 

Years of criminal justice research have confirmed the futility–and injustice–of America’s approach to drug prohibition, an approach that creates drug “schedules” unsupported by evidence of harm, fails to distinguish between use and abuse, treats drug use as a criminal justice issue rather than a public health problem, and requires massive wasteful public expenditures.

Those are mistakes Portugal no longer makes.

Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001. Weed, cocaine, heroin, you name it — Portugal decided to treat possession and use of small quantities of these drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one. The drugs were still illegal, of course. But now getting caught with them meant a small fine and maybe a referral to a treatment program — not jail time and a criminal record.

The reactions from so-called “experts” were predictable. And wrong.

Whenever we debate similar measures in the U.S. — marijuana decriminalization, for instance — many drug-policy makers predict dire consequences. “If you make any attractive commodity available at lower cost, you will have more users,” former Office of National Drug Control Policy deputy director Thomas McLellan once said of Portugal’s policies. Joseph Califano, founder of the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, once warned that decriminalization would “increase illegal drug availability and use among our children.”

But in Portugal, the numbers paint a different story. The prevalence of past-year and past-month drug use among young adults has fallen since 2001, according to statistics compiled by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which advocates on behalf of ending the war on drugs. Overall adult use is down slightly too. And new HIV cases among drug users are way down.

Now, numbers just released from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction paint an even more vivid picture of life under decriminalization: drug overdose deaths in Portugal are the second-lowest in the European Union.

Portugal has now operated under decriminalization for fifteen years, a time period sufficient to allow us to draw some conclusions. At a minimum, we can conclude that the country hasn’t experienced the dire consequences that opponents of decriminalization predicted.  The Transform Drug Policy Institute, which has analyzed Portugal’s policy outcomes, says of  of Portugal’s drug laws,

The reality is that Portugal’s drug situation has improved significantly in several key areas. Most notably, HIV infections and drug-related deaths have decreased, while the dramatic rise in use feared by some has failed to materialise.

Of course, there are other aspects of Portuguese society that are important contributors to these salutary results. As an article from Vice points out,

Though often narrowly assessed in reference to its decriminalization law, Portugal’s experience over the last decade and a half speaks as much to its free public health system, extensive treatment programs, and the hard to quantify trickle down effects of the legislation. In a society where drugs are less stigmatized, problem users are more likely to seek out care.

So let’s see….a country that doesn’t stigmatize or criminalize personal drug use, and provides its population with an extensive “free public health system” seems to have solved–or at least significantly moderated–its drug problem.

And of course, Portugal–like every other industrialized country— spends far less per capita on medical care than the U.S. does.

We don’t learn from our own failures, and we refuse to learn from other countries’ successes. I think that’s what’s called American Exceptionalism.


  1. I would make two points. First, the better course would be legalization, rather than decriminalization, although the latter is far better than the present situation in this country. When drugs are decriminalized, the market for those drugs still is illegal. Legalization means controls on purity, lower prices (because illegal goods usually are significantly higher in price), and a means to tax the goods sold to help offset health care costs. This is far more cost-beneficial. Second, the proposed policies of the individual in the Oval Office to promote privatized prisons will cause the focus to be on greater numbers of people for drug offenses. I doubt the effort to fight crime will be on people from Wall Street who commit financial crimes.

  2. Some scientists believe that all life forms seek to alter their consciousness in some way or another, and that’s provable in the case of humans. We enjoy a sugar high, a caffeine buzz, eating certain foods, drinking alcohol, using tobacco, running. All of these activities can be positive or negative, depending on the person, one’s environment, and one’s mindset. If something becomes a physical addiction that affects one’s interaction with the rest of the world, then it becomes a problem. Without addressing the underlying causes of addiction, the problem is not solved and locking someone up only exacerbates that problem. Laws against “Drugs” only allows government to maintain more control over the individual, legally steal your property, extort tax money and prevents a person from achieving personal goals. Prohibition, as Lincoln said, strikes at the heart of liberty.

  3. Sheila, if your analysis is original, I congratulate you! You have truly hit the nail on the head. We do NOT learn from our own mistakes, and we do NOT learn from others’ successes. What does that make us, exceptional that we are?

  4. When I was young, the nation, and especially teenagers, were flooded with the message (from Harry Van Arsdale, the head of the DEA) that if you smoked one joint, you were going to become a heroin addict. Now we have Jeff Sessions. “Plus ca change…”

  5. Aside from the issue today, I MUST get this off my chest before I am driven to drink or illegally seek a few joints. Why is the media buying into and being distracted by Trump’s latest stupid comments, which are incorrect as always and totally irrelevant to his presidency and the strong possibility of imminent nuclear war with North Korea – or somebody? President Andrew Jackson (a slave owner) was dead and long past stinking before the Civil War began; the Civil War ended for most of this country 152 years ago but some southerners (Sessions for one) have not yet rejoined the Union. The media needs to get back on track and rejoin the 21st Century.

    Indiana has been concerned over allowing anyone caring to do so, to sell cold beer (alcohol IS a drug) on Sunday. I find it highly questionable that this would be allowed in service stations any day of the week to sell alcohol to drivers who arrived in their vehicles and leave with their drug of choice ready to use.

    The ruling argument against legalizing marijuana is tied to the loss of profits to Big Pharma aside from the legalization of medical use; there are those who will misunderstand this and will self-medicate by toking up for illnesses real and imagined. Indiana laws prevent the growth and sale of hemp; an extremely beneficial plant with many money-making uses which would increase Indiana’s tax base but lack of knowledge prevents this. It contains properties SIMILAR to marijuana and also has medical benefits; I have yet to find anyone who knows of anyone smoking hemp or growing it illegally to sell for that use – and I have asked around. Does Portugal produce hemp?

    Several years ago, the United States entered into a contract with Colombia whereby Colombia agreed to cease the production and sale of cocaine to this country. My good friend who was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia, with a law degree from the University of Colombia, who maintains dual citizenship due to family in both countries, explained to me that the contract was (and is) useless. Colombia is primarily a poor country with no social services to aid those with no or low income; their raising and selling the drug producing plants puts food on their tables, roofs over their heads, clothes on their backs, educates and provides medical care for their families. By the way; Portuguese is the primary language of Colombia.

    The United States, with all of its modernization and leading the world in many areas, is living in the 19th Century when it come to knowledge regarding the issue of drugs and their uses. The abuse of prescribed drugs in this country to “get high” and the misuse of over-prescribing (the recent Bernie Sanders, Chris Hayes TV special regarding that issue has already been forgotten) and the prescribing of drugs for uses NOT approved by FDA causes birth defects and at times, deaths. There is much more at stake than legalizing the sale of marijuana in this country.

    In the mid-1970’s I worked in the central intake unit of Community Addiction Services Agency (CASA); the federally funded methadone system with clinics throughout Indianapolis and in most major U.S. cities. They provided a safe haven and medical help for addicts – until the federal funds ended and patients were all sent back to the streets and committing crimes to “feed their habit”. I also dealt with addiction of some of my own children at the time there was a serious lack on information and virtually no help. I fought my own personal “war on drugs” and, like the United States, I lost.

  6. But if we legalize or decriminalize drug us, how will we take care of our friends in the private prison industry? We have to think of them, since they’ve poured tons of money into our campaign coffers.

  7. I’m sure our drug policies, like every other policy, is currently controlled by lobbyists and ALEC and uninformed donors to both political parties. As always, follow the money.

  8. As we have seen, alcohol prohibition did not work in America. Prohibition is like a green-light to crime and black-market activities, which is in turn, big money for some unscrupulous folks.

    I agree with daleb….”follow the money”

    And yes, for-profit prisons are certainly obscenely close partners with their lobbyists and “law-makers.” The question is how do we untangle the entrenched web of corruption?

  9. Can we agree wingnuts will never legalize drugs if there is a new tax implemented to defray costs? There most likely would be death penalties for small time users and taxcuts for the wealthy.

    Everyone knows wingnuts cannot govern. They are genetically predisposed to make the wrong choice on every issue.

    We need more private prisons because Jefferson Beauregard Numbnuts is invested in private prison stocks.

  10. As I started reading this article, I thought the other thing we refuse to learn from others is Health Care for all. That piece did get covered in the article. I hear the Republicans are still trying to torpedo ACA, with various maneuvers.

    One other item “American Exceptionalism” will not tolerate is the metric system.

  11. I have been an advocate for legalization/regulation for a long time. Based on Fed America’s inability to effectively regulate it’s “legal” narcotics, I’m now supporting straight-up legalization. Leave the regulation to the states. The CAs an NYs can go as far as they want with it, or responsible states can adopt a more sensible approach.

  12. Private prisons would be put out of business if such a low is passed so it isn’t going to happen

  13. It turns out that we are, collectively, not very smart. However there is perhaps a downward trend lately as we have demonstrated that we are not even smart enough to choose who governs us and how.

    This is a stunning revelation with many implications.

    Perhaps we ought to consider turning over the controls of our world, as we are our cars, to robots.

  14. Sheila,

    Great article. Perhaps if we took deep time to consider the difference between “use and abuse” of alcohol, street and prescription drugs for ourselves and others, we might find we could not only reduce our population behind all bars, and also reduce medical costs, for ourselves and the system; prevent more accidents, random shootings and assults; improve the policies made law by our lawmakers; etc. I am not a probitionist, however it seems we do not openly take into account, especially in the press, involvement of alcohol and drugs in random acts of violence.

    Thanks again for bring this to the cold, hard light of reality testing.

  15. Very thought provoking, as always. Perhaps 30 years ago I had a casual discussion with my mother about the drug war. (She died two years ago aged 98.) She was politically conservative at the time (that changed), so I was shocked when she stated unequivocally that drugs should be legalized, that Prohibition hadn’t worked either, and that the only reason drugs weren’t legalized was because rich people were getting richer from them. As daleb said, follow the money.

    Fast forward to the present, and the sudden desire by the Kochs and their ilk for criminal justice reform, which had me scratching my head. Since when did conservatives want more lenient criminal justice????? Then I read the excellent book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” by Sam Quinones (I still have a couple of chapters to go), and had an AHA! moment. The connection to criminal justice reform is this: People with melanin who use drugs are criminals, but white people who use drugs are victims. OMG — we can’t go throwing middle class white kids in jail now, can we? I agree with Portugal (and Prof. Kennedy) that it’s a public health crisis, not a matter of criminality or victimhood.

  16. Joyce Jensen; my staunch Republican parents never changed their minds when it came time to vote…even after complaining about current conditions under THEIR Republican leaders. My father always believed Nixon was a good president, had been lied about and cheated out of the presidency. He rushed home from wherever he was not to miss Rush’s broadcast; he never admitted that his investments in CDs, mutual funds and interest in savings accounts make his biggest financial gains under Bill Clinton. He of course never knew that, with me using the same investment counselor after his death, I lost thousands within 18 months of George W’s inauguration…he would be blaming it on Clinton if he knew. This is an example of the “white seniors” blamed for Trump’s election. Not everything “learned at our parent’s knee” benefited all us personally, formed our lives or “made America great”. And aren’t we glad about that!

    I am still searching in vain for something conservative in the actions of today’s Conservative party. Can anyone help me with this?

  17. JoAnn Green, I’m glad your parents’ daughter sees the world through different eyes than they did. Seeing the world through your eyes has been beneficial for this reader. 😎

  18. Thanks so much, Joyce, it was difficult as I grew older and understood their feelings and beliefs when mine were so different. We don’t like to believe – or admit – our parents can be wrong.

  19. Oh Sheila Sheila Sheila (based on an iconic phrase from the Brady Bunch TV show). You are blessed with a bright mind, years of productive legal and academic experience, and yet you can still be as naive as an undeclared undergraduate. The US War on Drugs was NEVER about morality or what it claimed to be: i.e. drug prevention. Rather, it was ALL about suppressing threatening politically-active adversaries, many of whom were urban blacks and left-wing college students. John Erlichman, one of Nixon’s closest advisers, and an architect of the WOD, openly admitted this last year (link below).

    In the meantime, political leaders and public safety officials across the land have institutionalized the failed narrative of “saving our children” from the scourge of drugs by arresting and locking up those who could not afford, nor could their parents afford, to hire criminal attorneys who knew how to navigate the convenient legal procedures of diversion and criminal record expungement for a significant fee. “Heaven help us if our darling Braden (or Alexis) couldn’t get into Brown University just because of an occasional dalliance with horse!”.

    Portugal has its own socio-economic class and political problems, but somehow they’ve found other ways than fake substance-abuse criminal arrest, prosecution and incarceration programs to address them.


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