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Decriminalization of Drugs in Portugal: Lessons for Public Health Kellen Russoniello, JD, MPH Health Policy Fellow, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties Student Director, Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Introduction
Kellen Russoniello, JD, MPH
Health Policy Fellow, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties
Student Director, Students for Sensible Drug Policy
In 2001, Portugal radically reformed its approach to drug use by decriminalizing the personal possession of all drugs and investing in public health infrastructure aimed at reducing the harm caused by drug addiction. These reforms have been effective in reducing drug-related disease and death. Portugal’s experience suggests that decriminalization and investment in treatment and harm reduction can be an impactful means of improving public health. However, comparison between Portugal and Mexico demonstrates how different methods of decriminalization can produce very different outcomes. This poster explains how the lessons learned in Portugal (and by comparison to Mexico’s decriminalization scheme) can be implemented into drug policy in the United States to help reduce drug addiction, drug use-related health consequences, and over-incarceration.
Lessons for the United States
The United States has the highest population of incarcerated people and rate of incarceration in the world. A substantial proportion of those incarcerated are sentenced for drug offenses. Despite this, the rates of drug use and addiction have remained relatively stable. Further, only about one in 10 people with addiction receive treatment.
The United States can learn from Portugal’s experience. Decriminalization of personal drug possession, so long as the amounts defined as personal use are sufficient, can help reduce criminal justice system backlog and prison overcrowding. If drug offenses are removed from the criminal justice system, like in Portugal, then the stigma surrounding addiction will begin to erode. Resources that were previously used for apprehending and prosecuting those who use drugs could be used to bolster harm reduction, prevention, and treatment services. In Portugal, investment in this infrastructure has shown to be an effective means of reducing drug-related health consequences.
The implementation of the Affordable Care Act provides states with incentive for decriminalization by requiring that health plans cover addiction and mental health services. Because offenders would only be able to access these services outside of incarceration, states may want to consider alternatives to jail or prison sentences for drug offenses, including decriminalization.
How Decriminalization in Portugal Works
Towards the end of the last millennium, Portugal recognized barriers to treatment caused by criminalization prevented an effective approach to drug use and related consequences. As a result, the government implemented a
strategy based on principles of harm reduction, prevention, and reintegration of drug users into society.
A key component of the policy is the decriminalization of the personal use and possession of all drugs. Instead of criminal penalties, a person caught with a quantity of drugs that does not exceed a personal supply will be referred to a Commission
Countries with the Most Number of Prisoners (in thousands)
The criminal justice system has also benefited. The total number of criminal drug offenses has decreased by nearly two-thirds, allowing police to focus on more serious drug offenses. The reduction in criminal sentences for drug offenses also contributed to a reduction in prison overcrowding (from 199 to 101.5 per 100 prison spaces between 2001 and 2005). The number of offenses committed under the influence of drugs or to fund consumption decreased by over 50 percent between 1999 an 2008.
Decriminalization of Drugs in Mexico
In 2009, Mexico decriminalized personal possession of all drugs in order to focus efforts on drug trafficking (unlike Portugal, who did so for public health reasons). Under the system, those found in possession of drugs within the amount defined for personal use will
still be arrested and detained, but will receive a warning from the court for the first two offenses. The third offense results in mandatedtreatment.
At the sametime, penalties for possession of quantities
over the amount defined for personal use increased. With
a heavy emphasis on criminal justice solutions to drug
abuse, Mexico’s law has had little effect in the short-term
and may actually increase the societal problems Mexico
is already experiencing, such as corruption, backlog of
cases in the criminal justice system (especially pretrial
detention), and overcrowded prisons. In fact, because the
amounts of personal possession are so low, the law may actually detract from its own stated purpose of focusing on large-scale drug traffickers.
Glenn Greenwald, Cato Inst., Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies (2009).
Caitlin Elizabeth Hughes & Alex Stevens, What Can We Learn from the Portuguese Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs?, 50 Brit. J. Criminology 999 (2010).
Inst. on Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2012 National Report to the EMCDDA (2012); 2009 National Report to the EMCDDA (2009).
Kellen Russoniello, Note, The Devil (and Drugs) in the Details: Portugal’s Focus on Public Health as a Model for Decriminalization of Drugs in Mexico 12 Yale J. Health Pol’y L. & Ethics 371 (2012).