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Portuguese decriminalisation did not lead to increases in drug-related harms: Australian/UK study

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Date Published:
24 Nov 2010
Contact person:
Marion Downey
+612 9385 1080 / 0401 713 850

A joint Australian/UK study published this month in the British Journal of Criminology has shown that decriminalisation of all drug use in Portugal did not lead to increases in drug-related harms.

The authors, Dr Caitlin Hughes of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at the University of New South Wales and Professor Alex Stevens of the University of Kent, report on the first independent, academic study to assess the effects of the Portuguese policy.

In July 2001, Portugal decriminalised the possession of up to ten days' supply of all types of illicit drugs. Instead of being arrested, people found in possession of these substances are referred to regional committees for the 'dissuasion of addiction'. These committees have the power to impose warnings or administrative sanctions, including fines, restrictions on driving permits and referral to treatment. However, in most cases, they give a provisional suspension of proceedings – in effect, no punishment. Simultaneously, Portugal increased its investment in treatment and harm reduction services, for example methadone substitution treatment for people who are dependent on heroin.

Since 2001, the following trends have been observed:  

  • A modest increase in drug use reported by adults. This rise was no bigger than that reported in other southern European countries.
  • A reduction in drug use reported by school pupils.
  • A reduction in drug related deaths.
  • A reduction in HIV and AIDS.
  • A reduction in the burden of drug offenders on the prison system. 
  • An increase in the amount of drugs seized by the authorities.

“Contrary to predictions, the Portuguese decriminalisation did not lead to major increases in drug use,” write Dr Hughes and Professor Stevens. “Indeed, evidence indicates reductions in problematic use, drug-related harms and criminal justice overcrowding,” say the authors.

They add: “Such effects can be observed when decriminalising all illicit drugs. This is important, as decriminalisation is commonly restricted to cannabis alone.”

Dr Hughes cautioned that the effects are highly dependent on timing, context and nature of the reform and would not necessarily be the optimum solution for all countries.

“But given the frequent speculation about drug law reform, this provides much needed evidence that decriminalisation will not inevitably lead to catastrophic consequences for the reform country and that it may even aid the ability of health and law enforcement agencies to treat users and to detect and prosecute the traffickers of illicit drugs,” said Dr Hughes.

Professor Stevens said: “It also shows the importance of continued investment in treatment services and harm reduction to reduce drug-related deaths and HIV.”

Notes to editors:
1.    Dr Caitlin Hughes is a research fellow at the Drug Policy Modelling Program at The University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW.
2.    Alex Stevens is Professor in Criminal Justice at the University of Kent‟s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research.
3.    The full article, 'What can we learn from the Portuguese decriminalisation of illicit drugs?' is published in the November 2010 issue of the British Journal of Criminology.