Lessons From Portugal

Note to those who previously ordered Living Together: I apologize for the formatting. (Never self-published before–publishers always fixed spacing, etc.). I’ve deleted and republished, and hopefully those who order from now on will receive a nicer-looking text. (Contents haven’t changed.)


Remember when it was possible to believe that the United States was a leader among nations?

I have no intention of enumerating all the lessons we Americans have stubbornly refused to learn because, after all, what could those foreigners have to teach superior-by-definition us? (Think education, gun control, transportation, urban planning…)

But given our struggles with Opiod addiction, and our counterproductive approach to marijuana, it might be timely to take a look at  how things are going in Portugal. Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001, taking what it called a “Health and Human-Centered Approach.”

So how’s that working out?

Since Portugal enacted drug decriminalization in 2001, the number of people voluntarily entering treatment has increased significantly, overdose deaths and HIV infections among people who use drugs have plummeted, incarceration for drug-related offenses has decreased, and rates of problematic and adolescent drug use have fallen.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is facing an overdose crisis and resistance to common-sense reforms.

In March 2018, some 17 years into Portugal’s experiment, America’s Drug Policy Alliance took 70 U.S. reformers to Portugal. The trip was billed as an opportunity for drug policy reform advocates to determine whether a dramatically different approach to drugs might be more effective than criminalization. (Spoiler alert: it is.)

Some definitions and conclusions from the group’s subsequent report:

Drug decriminalization is defined as the elimination of criminal penalties for drug use and possessionof drugs for personal use, as well as the elimination of criminal penalties for the possession of equipment used for the purpose of introducing drugs into the human body, such as syringes. ….

While several other countries have had successful experiences with decriminalization–including the Czech Republic, Spain and the Netherlands –Portugal provides the most comprehensive and well-documented example. The success of Portugal’s policy has opened the door for other countries to rethink the practice of criminalizing people who use drugs. Canada, France, Georgia, Ghana, Ireland and Norway are all currently discussing ways to end criminalization of personal drug use….

Under the policy, when police come across people who are using or possessing drugs, they confiscate their substances and refer them to a Dissuasion Commission. This Commission is comprised of one official from the legal arena and two from the health or social service arenas who determine whether and to what extent the person demonstrates dependency on drugs.

These Commissions –which operate independently from the criminal justice system –make decisions on a case-by-case basis. If the committee believes the person’s use of drugs is not a problem, they can simply dismiss the case and the application of sanctions altogether. Alternatively, they can impose administrative sanctions that range from fines to social work or group therapy. The majority of people who appear before the Commissions are deemed to be using drugs non-problematically and receive no sanction or intervention, but rather a provisional suspension of the proceedings.

If they are not found in the possession of drugs again within six months, the matter is completely dropped. For people who appear to use drugs frequently and problematically, the Commissions will make referrals to treatment, which is always voluntary and never mandated. If people with substance use disorder opt not to enter treatment, administrative sanctions –such as the revocation of a driving license or community service –can be applied, but rarely are.

Meanwhile, back in the good old U.S. of A…

In the United States, the dominant approach to drug use is criminalization and harsh enforcement, with1.4 million arrests per year for drug possession for personal use. Disproportionately, those arrested are people of color: black people are three times as likely as white people to be arrested for drug possession for personal use.

The impact of these arrests and convictions goes well beyond possible incarceration, to include a range of barriers to access to housing, education and employment. The ripple effect throughout families and communities is devastating.

Given how intensely criminalization targets black and brown people in the U.S., it amounts to a form of systemic oppression. Meanwhile, criminalization means that few resources have been devoted to providing treatment, access to health services, and support to those who need it. For low-income people of color, such services and support are often non-existent.

Portugal’s approach is based upon the understanding that drugs are a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue–and Portugal has demonstrated that its approach works.

Ours doesn’t. But Americans make policy on the basis of religion and ideology, not evidence.


  1. Wait a minute!!! What about all those for-profit jails and prisons? Think about the jobs that would be lost. Think of the profits not made. Think of the suffering of those who make their living off the suffering of others. Where is your humanity?

  2. “Remember when it was possible to believe that the United States was a leader among nations?”

    Today; the personage who was once the “most powerful leader in the world” is sitting on his fat ass on a golf cart on his privately owned golf course as blood of victims is still being cleaned up and hosed off of our streets.

    And do not forget his bobble headed second-in-charge who ended funding to ALL Planned Parenthood clinics in the southern part of Indiana resulting in epidemics of HIV and opioid addictions due to no health care for those who needed it most but could not afford it.

  3. I often wondered why the United States would think prohibition works? Especially given the experiment with alcohol prohibition. During that legislative fiasco, prohibition increased the strength and prevalence of organized criminal activity. It’s the same way prohibition, or “the war on drugs” has created these violent cartels, and their association with street-level gangs in the United States fighting over turf to sell illicit drugs. Obviously our government has been aware of this, so why do they continue down this rabbit hole? Well, the government has been complicit in drug trafficking themselves. Drug trafficking decimated mostly African-American communities in the 60s. What Donald Trump refers to as the rat infested inner-city areas, can be directly related to government encouraging drug trafficking in those areas.

    They saw the African-American community is a threat, they made sure that a lot of the drugs ended up in the African-American community. It basically decimated many African-American strongholds, and it encouraged turf wars by the burgeoning drug-related gang activity. When you can get people fighting amongst themselves, you don’t have to worry about them anymore.

    America’s hands are not clean, and America has promoted a lot of evil in this world. One nation under God? I would say, God has nothing to do with it. We are a nation of laws only when it’s convenient for the upper echelon, laws are designed subordinate and subjugate citizenry that is deemed a threat. And those laws are circumvented by the connected and the wealthy. Why do you think healthcare creates such a battle? When the quality of life is good, people will be more active in government. When the quality of life is not so good, people concentrate on trying to survive, their health, feeding themselves and their families, putting a roof over their heads, clothing and shoes, and the like. Government, (politics and politicians) then can manipulate enough brainwashed individuals to shore up their lifelong appointments take care of their ruling class, just as they did with these barbaric tax cuts to corporations. All the while states taxing people off of their properties and expanding gambling to exploit the poorest of Americans.

    One nation under God? I highly doubt it.

  4. Theresa,

    Perfect and succinct analysis. What we ever do if our drug companies and private prison companies weren’t there to corrupt our politicians? Why, we might even be able to have real national pride again. That would never do.

    People on this blog keep scratching their heads about how any sane person could vote for Trump/Pence. It’s an everlasting puzzle….until you look and listen to Louis Gohmert, a Congressman from East Texas. He’s been reelected 4 times that I know of. He’s also a raving lunatic. Listen to some of his stuff on YouTube if you want to unclinch your jaw. And yet…. Texas voters keep pulling that Republican lever no matter who or what is on the ballot that isn’t of color or a Democrat. This willful lunacy applies to all Republican voters, especially the Trump worshipers. They actually think that Republicans and Trump have their best interests at heart.

  5. So basically, you’re saying Portugal treats everybody the way we treat wealthy white people.

  6. Vernon; Louie Gohmert has fascinated me since 2015 with his many illogical vote-getting views of his own Twilight Zone. He announced he would not run for the presidency in 2016 because, “After the Kennedy-Nixon debates, Americans changed their views on the presidency and would never again elect a bald president.” He could be correct in that assumption; look at all of the hair Trump combs forward on top and back behind his ears on both sides like a 1950’s “greaser”. “Republicanism For Dummies”

  7. Access to marijuana alone would have what kind of negative impact on Big Pharma and if we stopped arresting blacks, how would Big Prison be negatively impacted?

    We aren’t a human-centered country. We are a profit-centered country.

    Because of this, all our decisions make little common sense to the average citizen. What seems like a logical approach to problems gets log jammed by political lobbyists (bribers) of the political class. Just look at gun violence and the NRA (which is a union of gun owners). We hate unions for workers unless you’re a doctor or gun owner, etc.

    Until the USA moves our profit motives behind people motives, we’ll never get common-sense reforms. Period.

  8. JoAnn,

    LOL. It is clear from your analysis that Gohmert is bald because there is no fertility beneath his scalp.

  9. I’m with Theresa about all those for profit prisons! Those owners have the money for lobbyists and the drug users are F*’d.

    As a marijuana user, I had a legal medical marijuana card when I lived in AZ. It is the only thing that helps my pain levels. I get violently ill when I take opioids. According to my doctor, it comes from my DNA profile and there’s really nothing else that works for me.

    I’m not a criminal but if caught I’d be treated like one. Portugal proves their method works. But as JoAnn reminds us repeatedly, follow the money. In the US, only the Benjamins matter, not the humans. Because science isn’t real anymore or something.

  10. We never want to look outside our borders for any answers.

    Apr 19, 2018 – According to the Gun Violence Archive, a US-based survey group that collects information on gun violence, there were 15,612 gun-related deaths in the United States in 2017. This means that on average 42 people were killed each day in the United States as a result of gun violence, which is just under the total of 44 gun-related deaths in Japan over the past eight years.

    Japan, which is known for its strict firearms legislation, has historically had relatively little gun crime by international standards. In 2008, the number of shooting crimes fell below 50 for the year and has remained at this level ever since.

    Walmart provides it’s own answer to gun violence in the USA.
    Walmart has ordered workers to remove video game signs and displays that depict violence from stores nationwide after 22 people died in a shooting at one of its Texas stores, but the big box retailer will continue to sell guns. Walmart will still sell the violent video games and hasn’t made any changes to its gun sales policy.

    Walmart won’t shut down the profits from the sale of Violent Video Games, by not selling them,
    they won’t display the advertising violence. A bit like in the old days when Playboy Magazine was hidden behind a piece of cardboard.

    It is not just Republicans and President Agent Orange who blame Violent Video Games:
    Biden said. “But it is not healthy to have these games teaching kids that, you know, this dispassionate notion that you can shoot somebody and just, you know, sort of blow their brains out.” The ability to “act out” a Violent Video Game or a manifesto is provided by our lax to totally non-existent gun control laws.

    We will take no lessons from Canada, Japan or Western Europe concerning Health Care for All and prescription drug pricing.

    The criminalization of personal drug use is a huge profit center for the Criminal Justice Establishment.

    If you follow the money, the gun lobby, health care lobby and criminal justice system have at their core – Profit – and that is all that matters in America.

  11. MAGAts believe that Trump is Making America Great Again when in fact what’s happening is that he is restoring the “me only” people to the power that the past that started with slavery convinced them they are entitled to. That by definition is reconstructing the past while the world is building for the inevitable future. While history books talk about “reconstruction” some of the US was reconstructing the South to thrive with the labor of all of the residents while “me only” people where reconstructing it to slave like.

    Part of the reconstruction of a slave like state is to put as many from formerly slave families in jail for everything imaginable with scarce regard for justice. Drugs was as good a reason as any.

    While we are stuck in this time warp the rest of the world is solving social problems which creates freedom for everyone rather than power for the entitled. What’s interesting to note is that Europe developed aristocracy in the Western World, we invented liberal democracy as an antidote, they followed our lead, now we are following their lead from centuries ago while they leave us behind.

  12. Note to Sheila: I am in the middle of your latest book in the original printing. It is a little harder to read but still fine.

    In the introduction to her book, Prof. Kennedy, remarks that among us are groups who have different realities. I think that is the key for me to understand where the folks who back the Trump Party are. Their reality is not based on any fixed set of facts but on emotional responses to selected facts that fit the emotion.

    Reading the book is a process of reflecting and learning to see with open eyes the reality in which I live that is superficially like everyone else’s but is often seen through dark lenses of distortion and propaganda by others in the community. I suspect that it was ever thus. Tribalism continues to be our default.

  13. I suppose the Conspiracy Theories will now go off the charts:

    It was not clear how he suffered those injuries. Two anonymous sources told New York’s local NBC News 4 that Epstein’s injuries may have been self-inflicted, while another said an assault by another inmate had not been ruled out.

    Wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein has killed himself in prison, according to a media report by ABC News. His death comes just days after he was found unconscious in a Manhattan jail cell with injuries to his neck, US media had reported, citing unidentified sources.

    After the incident, Epstein was placed on suicide watch. So much for the suicide watch. If what I have read and heard the criminal case against Epstein is gone with his death. So it would appear the rich and famous who were friends with Epstein maybe breathing a sigh of relief.

  14. Some how I found to hard to believe by legalizing coke meth LSD pcp and heroin your overdose rate has dropped . while I agree on the legalizing of marijuana for medical and personal use . no other drug should as those I have mentioned above should be legal for people to use . that is stupid as hell .

  15. ML – Did anyone watch the TV show, “Scandal?” Epstein’s rich and famous friends probably had him exterminated!
    This is all in jest, but with our current state of affairs, nothing would surprise me, especially noting that trump’s name was associated with the scumbag.

  16. Some how I found to hard to believe by legalizing coke meth LSD pcp and heroin your overdose rate has dropped . while I agree on the legalizing of marijuana for medical and personal use . no other drug should as those I have mentioned above should be legal for people to use . that is stupid as hell .

  17. Monotonous; the criminal case is gone but his excellent record keeping, naming names and old news pictures are leads the authorities must investigate. The civil cases by his victims are still active and one attorney for one victim has asked other victims to come forward to file against his vast estate; New York City authorities are working with her and will work with them. The victims no longer need to fear him being released due to wealth and connections to those in high places of authority – pics of Epstein and Trump already making the rounds again – those who are now in fear are the ones whose names will be made public.

    Who cares if he died by his own hand or if he had help; one less child predator in this world filled with them. I consider this the first piece of good news connected to Trump after another week filled with Trump’s monstrous reaction to THREE mass murders in one week (people seem to have forgotten the Garlic Food Festival attack) and unending photo ops to support his ego.

  18. Linda, I never saw the TV show you referred to. Not much would surprise me, when the rich, famous and powerful are threatened.

  19. I have been co-opted because I slept late. The first thing that occurred to me upon reading Sheila’s Portugal blog was that the private prison industry would take a hit and that prison facilities would be (inefficiently and thus not profitable) underutilized, all of which is good but not the best news. The best news is that Portugal may have used one of our “Brandeis state laboratory experiments” we have refused to use in coming up with a long sought answer to our drug problem – and do some social justice in the process.

    It’s a real world; Norman Rockwell need not apply. Our policymakers should spend less time pontificating and criminalizing and more time in carrying out anti-drug programs that work; less shame and more help; adopting user programs where the only crimes involved are in not carrying out the civil procedures designed to keep users out of jail and off drugs. Portugal is proving that it can be done, so let’s come up with a model statute fleshed out with rules and regulations designed to get the job done, perhaps with some variation from the Portuguese language to account for our size or other variables while keeping the core elements of the Portuguese plan intact. Can’t be done? Costs too much? Not enough teeth? Someone tell me how the present system is working in re costs and results.

  20. JoAnn, I take a different view – Epstein’s death stinks. His victims may not fear Epstein anymore, but the powerful who were his pals are still around and it is not just President Agent Orange.

    “We need answers,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “Lots of them.”

    Shortly after her tweet, Ocasio-Cortez re-tweeted a comment by former prosecutor and CNN legal analyst Renato Mariotti—an indication of some of her concerns.

    “Epstein’s suicide,” noted Mariotti, “ends the criminal case against him because no one else was charged in the indictment.”

  21. I have often wondered how China quickly ended the opium problem in China. This came up very quickly. https://www.quora.com/How-did-China-eradicate-the-opium-problem-given-that-opium-addiction-penetrated-all-the-way-up-to-the-Imperial-Court
    Which makes me say this: If the problem is not big enough to execute people for it, it’s not big enough to bother with.
    We should have learned this with Prohibition, but, no, we were just happy to add another problem — organized crime.

  22. Stephen F Smith – Although the link you are citing is a Q&A for self-proclaimed experts, are you suggesting we just execute all drug dealers and users without trial or due process like Maoist China?

    The key point they mention is treating the users as victims. That is similar to the Portuguese approach, except it still leaves a “bad guy” to blame, the drug itself. I prefer to view these problems as medical, since addiction is a physiological phenomenon. I have no need for “devils” or “evil drugs” to blame.

    As for summary execution, it is a time honored way to be rid of things and people you don’t like, Jews, Armenians, Bosnians, Hutu, Tutsi, Muslims, Christians, and of course, Mexicans.
    It can be effective, but remember when public hanging of pickpockets was prevalent, pickpockets would work the crowd of onlookers at public hangings.

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