26 September 2023

What can the ACT learn from Portugal about drug decriminalisation?

| Lizzie Waymouth
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Lisbon at night

A former police chief and the head of Portugal’s Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction told the BBC in 2007: “There were fears Portugal might become a drug paradise but that simply didn’t happen.” Photo: File.

New laws decriminalising the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs come into effect in the ACT on 28 October.

As Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy (CAHMA) executive director Chris Gough told Region last month, this is a fairly “well-trodden” path: the ACT first decriminalised small amounts of cannabis use in 1992.

Looking beyond Canberra, there are plenty of examples around the world of countries that have chosen to reduce penalties for possession of drugs and make the issue more one of harm reduction than criminal punishment.

Can we learn anything from them?

The example that gets thrown around a lot is Portugal.

In 2001, new laws came into effect in Portugal that made possession of drugs an administrative offence rather than criminal as long as the individual was found with less than the average amount required for 10 days of personal use.

There was, unsurprisingly, strong opposition to the reforms, which came after drug use skyrocketed in the 1990s.

Paulo Portas, leader of the conservative Popular Party, said: “There will be planeloads of students heading for the Algarve to smoke marijuana and take a lot worse, knowing we won’t put them in jail. We promise sun, beaches and any drug you like.”

It seems this wasn’t the case, though. About 95 per cent of drug offences in the years that followed were committed by locals.

Indeed, Fernando Negrão, a former police chief and the head of Portugal’s Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction, told the BBC in 2007: “There were fears Portugal might become a drug paradise [for tourists], but that simply didn’t happen.”

So, if you think Canberra is about to become the new Lisbon (which was feared to become the new Amsterdam), probably don’t hold your breath.

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Opponents of decriminalisation are also quick to warn that it will inevitably result in an increase in drug use, but drug use in Portugal has not veered far from wider European trends since 2001.

In fact, according to surveys conducted in 2023 by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, drug use among young people and adults seems to be lower in Portugal than in many other EU nations.

The results of a European-wide drug survey conducted before and after the decriminalisation found drug use increased in Portugal following the decriminalisation. However, this isn’t necessarily connected to the country’s drug policy, given similar trends were seen elsewhere. Prevalence of drug use over the past 12 months among 15 to 65-year-olds increased from 3.4 per 1000 people in 2001 to 3.7 per 1000 in 2007.

“Portuguese trends largely mimicked the trends observed in neighbouring Spain and Italy … The congruity with the other data from neighbouring nations provides little evidence that any apparent increases were directly attributable to the decriminalisation,” it said.

Looking specifically at drug use among younger people, the study found lifetime use of most illicit drugs increased in the lead-up to and immediately after 2001 but then declined. This also broadly follows trends across Europe, but the “2003–07 decline in reported use of any illicit substance appears more pronounced in Portugal”.

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One of the arguments for decriminalisation often touted is that it will encourage people to seek help as drug users will no longer fear criminal sanctions. Anecdotal evidence from the International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD) suggests this wasn’t always the case.

INPUD found drug users in Portugal were still being stopped, searched and harassed by police, despite the partial decriminalisation, and that police felt they lacked the training to deal with the new laws.

“I think the new law managed to open space to some policemen, and some judges, and some security forces can be more open and comprehensive,” one participant said. “But it depends, you know? You can have that night a policeman that is very strict and rigid.”

While advocates say decriminalisation will reduce stigma and encourage people to seek help, drug users who spoke to INPUD said they still felt discriminated against.

“Stigma is not a thing that disappears magically, so for years and years, we have been looked [at] like criminals, or with moral defect, so that won’t disappear by magic,” one participant said.

“And at the same time, they’re now introducing a new stigma – the mental health disorder, which can be as bad as the criminal stigma … The stigma is still there, the prejudice is still there, the labelling is still there.”

Looking at the data from Portugal, comparing a European country in 2001 with Canberra in 2023 is like comparing apples and oranges. So what can we learn? Possibly just that the change may not have as much of an impact – whether positive or negative – on drug use and stigmatisation as we thought.

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Also the court system & the jail wont be busting at the seams ,people with drug addictions dont belong in jail ! The reason drug addicts end up there is they have to resort to crime to fund their habits.If the goverment supplied the drugs, the crime rate would drop greatly, peoples homes would be safe ,car thefts would definatly drop.No stick ups on the corner stores . Now wouldnt that be great for Joe citizen?! They supply the methadone , alcohol &cigarettes ,whats the difference. Classic government move , half hearted.

The latest series of “Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons” on Netflix has an episode from Indonesia where they appear to be helping addicts break the cycle of crime and be useful members of society again.

The sentences are possibly too harsh, but you do need harsh sentences to incentivise criminals to change their ways for their own good, and the good of society around them.

Lenient sentences of only a few months or a couple years are not enough for many hard core criminals and addicts to change their ways. They can easily wait it out.

Giving them a reasonably harsh sentence that can be reduced to a lesser sentence upon proof of personal responsibility and acceptance of rehabilitation looks to be a productive model with benefits for the criminals and the wider community.

Having community rehab services is great for those that want it and accept it, but for the others that don’t then detention is necessary to help focus their life choices and remove them from harm, bad company and life stressors that prevent them from being open to rehabilitation.

The proposed Canberra model of optional rehab support and $100 fines, which the cops won’t even bother issuing, will very obviously have no impact on improving anything for either the addicts or the community that suffers them.

Good now legalise guns. I’ll be carrying a firearm for my family’s protection.

Did you even read the article? Decriminalisation led to a decrease in drug use compared to neighbouring countries. Now think about the gun laws in the US – do you think it’s the same and they have less gun crime than Canada?

Canberra has the highest drug use per head per capital, The gov should supply the drugs, just like they supply methadone.Wont that eliminate dealers & crime ?.

Linda Seaniger6:39 am 28 Sep 23

Thank you, Not happy, Jan for putting the link up to Portugal’s experience of encouraged drug use. I have seen the results of encouraged drug use it in other European cities and in Vancouver myselfIt’s not a good outcome. Our quality of life will be diminish in favour of another minority group that will receives a lot our tax payers dollars to enjoy their hobby..Wake up Canberrans. The murky green and Labor Party need to go.

Take a deep breath and read the article again. It contradicts your statement. In Portugal, the decriminalisation led to decreased drug use than neighbouring countries, not an increase. Ergo if you want less drug use in the ACT research shows decriminalisation will achieve this. Don’t let your emotions blind you from the facts.

The article actually says that some types of drug use are less than some neighbours like France and Italy, but is still higher than other countries like Germany.

It also says that overdose rates are currently at a high over the last 12 years, and that crime has also spiked over the last three years.

The police also said that the drug situation now is comparable to the years before decriminalization was implemented.

Hence why the people of Portugal are questioning the value of decriminalisation and want it to end.

Even the head of Portugal’s national institute on drug use and the architect of decriminalization admitted to the local press in December that “what we have today no longer serves as an example to anyone.” Rather than fault the policy, however, he blames a lack of funding.

Does Canberra properly fund anything anymore? Perhaps the tram but not much else, so we have no chance of being able to make decriminalisation work. As usual the residents of Canberra will pay the price for GreensLab looney policies.

Portugal, the darling of drug decriminalisation, looks to be having regrets now according to a recent Washington Post article.

Portugal looks to have a better health and support system, which Canberra obviously doesn’t have, and still ended up failing.

Perhaps this will be the ultimate looney policy that finally wakes Canberra up and results in the removal of our current GreensLab clown councillors.


liveandletlive2:41 pm 27 Sep 23

So nothappyjan – what do you propose as a solution to fix the drug issue? Serious question. Criminalising drugs has not worked, so how do we fix the issue? I hear a lot of opinions that decriminalisation won’t work, but not many people offering up alternatives. Happy to hear yours jan.

Well liveandletlive you say “Criminalising drugs has not worked”, says who?

Are you suggesting that just because a particular crime continues to be committed that we should just decriminalise it because it hasn’t worked 100%?

Criminalising anything has not worked 100%, criminals still commit all sorts of crimes, and you’d have to be pretty daft to believe that there would be less crime if any particular crime was decriminalised.

Making the whole community suffer for the minority of criminal drug addicts is clearly not working where they have tried drug decriminalisation.

We can learn from other country’s mistakes on drug decriminalisation, we don’t need to repeat the same mistakes here.

Offering drug addicts the choice of seeking support has also not worked anywhere they have decriminalisation either, why would it if it’s not mandatory. Drug addicts only care about their next fix, nothing else.

Put the addicts into detention like all other criminals and offer proper treatment and support to those that want it, with an earlier release for those that have demonstrated a willingness to be a valuable part of the community again.

Leave the rest where they can’t harm themselves or the community for a longer term if they don’t want to help themselves or the community.

Labor should love it as it keeps the unions happy and creates unionised employment. But they are too busy defunding the police, health and all the other services addicts require to pay for their toy tram.

The only thing progressive about the GreensLab clowns is their destruction of Canberra over the last two decades.

Liveandletlive, introduce harsher jail sentences for drug possession such as countries like Indonesia with surprise surprise no drug problem!

Decriminalization also benefits those who are not “addicts” but like to party on the weekends. Not saying it’s right, but there’s no point in them getting a criminal record and ruining their career over a victimless crime.

liveandletlive10:52 am 28 Sep 23

Really – why do contributors to Riotact continually state that Indonesia doesn’t have a drug problem. The country boasts 273,523,615 inhabitants, 6,000,000 of whom suffer from a drug and alcohol addiction, or a substance use disorder (SUD). In 2002, Indonesia saw an increase in substance abuse, with a reported 17.8% of people with an SUD dying from fatal overdoses. As of 2004, an estimated 1.5% of the population aged 15 to 64 years of age in Indonesia abused harmful chemicals. About 71% consumed Marijuana, and 15% abused Meth.

liveandletlive12:00 pm 28 Sep 23

Thanks nothappyjan – appreciate the response. My issue here is treating addicts as criminals with the view to just lock them up (and offer treatment, I note). We should be treating the addiction as a health issue, not a criminal issue. I can’t imagine many people come out of jail better off. Imagine if we treated all the Australian alcoholics like that and just threw them in jail, or the smokers, or the gamblers etc. Drugs is just another addiction, and there are many. I would argue alcoholics present more harm to the Australian community via DV than drug addicts do – but of course alcohol is legal right so we can’t play in that space. Either way, thanks for responding.

There’s nothing victimless about drug addicts, users or dealers.

Anyone that buys drugs actually supports and encourages a whole ecosystem of crime that often spans multiple countries, and the various crime syndicates and gangs that run them.

All the associated crimes linked to drugs and drug dealers are too vast to list. But many people will have experienced or witnessed drug related property crime, physical violence, dangerous driving and all the costs to the health and insurance systems that we all end up paying for.

Even with decriminalisation it will still be illegal to sell drugs, and none of the associated crimes will magically disappear.

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