Tenyears ago, Portugal decriminalised the use of all drugs,from marijuana to heroin, but hasit worked in tackling the country's drug problem?
Sunday, October 30, 2011 - 20:32

Ten years ago, Portugal took a bold step in the fight against drugs, by decriminalising the use of all drugs, ranging from marijuana to heroin.

It means people found with a small amount for personal use are referred to a 'dissuasion commission' for professional advice, but don't end up with a criminal conviction. Trafficking and dealing though are still illegal.

The law was changed to try and tackle the huge drug addiction problem in the country in the 90s.

But opponents warned that rather than making it easier to help addicts, drug use would soar, with the whole problem much more difficult to police.

So ten years on, has the change in the law worked? And can other countries learn from Portugal's lead?

WATCH - Click to see David O'Shea's report.

EXTRA - What's defined as an appropriate amount of drugs for 'personal use'? Find out more details about the Portuguese drug laws.

INTERVIEW - David talks to SBS Radio's World News Australia about his story and the impact Portugal's financial crisis could have on the drug problem.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? - Do you think Portugal's liberal laws help or hinder tackling the drug problem? Click on our comments link to give us your views.



How is an appropriate amount of drugs for 'personal use' defined under Portuguese law?
The maximum quantities are in the table below, and click here to read the full wording of the legislation.









Cocaine (hydrochloride)


Cocaine (methyl ester of benzoylecgonine)


Cannabis (Herbal)


Cannabis (Resin)


Cannabis (Oil)


Phencyclidine (PCP)



500ug (0.0005g)





Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)





A decade ago, Portugal took the bold step of completely decriminalising the use of all drugs. At the time the country was suffering the highest instance of drug-related AIDS deaths in all of Europe - drastic action needed to be taken to reach out to the addicts. But opponents warned the course that Portugal took would turn the country into a drug abuser's paradise and that usage would soar. David O'Shea travelled to Lisbon to assess the success or otherwise of the 10-year-old experiment.

REPORTER: David O'Shea

At the end of a long day, graphic designer Nuno rolls himself a joint. Portugal's relaxed drug laws mean that marijuana smokers like Nuno can light up without fear of arrest.

NUNO: I like it - the first of the day.

That night Nuno takes me on a tour of Lisbon's thriving nightlife, where the demand for drugs is high. There's no shortage of offers - even with the camera on.

NUNO: Whatever you want to buy it shows up on the street.

The country's liberal drug policy has decriminalised the use of all drugs, from marijuana to heroin and everything in between.

NUNO: Actually, you can take drugs - you cannot have them but it is not a crime to take it.

But as Nuno explains to these tourists police have the power to confiscate any drugs they find.

NUNO: You can't traffic it so you are allowed to have; a small amount, yeah! But even though, if they catch you..

TOURIST: You will still get a ticket?

NUNO: No, but they will probably keep the substance.

TOURIST: Oh, they'll just confiscate it? It's better than America - in America - they do more than just take it. You probably will go to jail and a lot of money.

Portugal's controversial decriminalisation law, which took effect in 2001, was born of desperation.

DR. JOAO GOULAO, INSTITUTE ON DRUGS AND DRUG ADDICTION: In the beginning of the 90s we had 100,000 people hooked on heroin, which is enormous.

Family doctor Joao Goulao saw the effects of the heroin epidemic every day in his practice.

DR. JOAO GOULAO: It was difficult to find a family that had no-one with serious problems with drugs. Lots of people died with it. Lots of people got AIDS for instance. Two generations were killed by drugs.

Frustrated by a system which treated drug users as criminals and not as addicts needing treatment, Dr Goulao has been the public face of the decriminalisation policy since its beginning.

DR. JOAO GOULAO: This political evolution that has been led much more by professionals than by politicians.

A few days ago 16-year-old Pedro and a friend were picked up by police near their school with some cannabis.

PEDRO (Translation): They took us to the drug squad, they told us to be careful and gave us advise about drugs.

As part of decriminalisation policy, the Police referred Pedro, who preferred not to be indentified, to the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction. Accompanied by his mother, that's where he is off to now.

REPORTER: Are you nervous going here?


REPORTER: Why not?

PEDRO (Translation): No reason.

REPORTER: Nothing to worry about?


DRUG ADDICTION CENTRE OFFICER (Translation): How often are you taking drugs now?

PEDRO (Translation): On weekends, sometimes on weekends.

DRUG ADDICTION CENTRE OFFICER (Translation): Is ti usually alone or with others?

PEDRO (Translation): With others.

DRUG ADDICTION CENTRE OFFICER (Translation): So you have never tried any other substances? Okay.

Pedro, are you aware of how hashish could affect your health?

PEDRO (Translation): Yes.

DRUG ADDICTION CENTRE OFFICER (Translation): Yes. I'm not saying a bit of hashish will make you fail the year. It's good to be careful while you are still studying because hashish can start to affect your cognitive capabilities.

We know that we are not some miraculous structure where people come to and then they just stop using drugs. We know that when people come here they still continue to do drugs like they used to, what we hope is that they do it in a more conscious and more responsible way.

We only apply sanctions in the case of a second offence. Pedro would be considered a re-offender then, there would be sanctions. When someone is first caught, if they are not addicted, we suspend the case and do not apply sanctions.

For a second offence there may be a fine, community work, or encouragement to attend a drug rehabilitation program at a facility like this one. Prison and a criminal record have been replaced with treatment and therapy, like art classes.

DRUG ADDICTION CENTRE OFFICER: Considering drug users as criminals just because they are using drugs is not a very realistic approach.

Here former addicts are relearning the basics of coordination, after years of abusing their bodies. But not everyone is happy with the system. Back at the Dissuasion Commission 40-year-old Rui has had problems with hard drugs in the past, but was referred here for possession of a small amount of hashish.

RIU (Translation): Maybe for young people, the program can give them a lesson - put them in a program to dissuade them to see if they can, you know;. But as for me, I see no harm in smoking a joint or someone else smoking a joint.

DRUG ADDICTION CENTRE OFFICER: What we do here, if people want our help we are able to help them. If people don't want our help we cannot impose our help on them of course. It wouldn't work that way. But if people are willing to receive our help we can be really helpful for them.

DR. JOAO GOULAO: Now I can say that drug addiction - problematic drug use has decreased.

Thousands of drug users have been through this process and Dr Goulao is proud of the program's success.

DR. JOAO GOULAO: Illicit drug use in young people has decreased. We have a record number of people under treatment.

At the European Monitoring centre for drugs and addiction Brendan Hughes tell me the most important part of the drug laws is the work of the dissuasion commission.

BRENDAN HUGHES, EUROPEAN MONITORING CENTRE FOR DRUGS: Portugal is the only country in Europe, maybe the only country a lot wider which has actually changed all of its structures to reflect the fact that it believes that drug use is a health problem rather than a criminal problem.

UNDERCOVER AGENT: This is an area that there are a lot of addicts.



The policy change has had a big impact on police work. Undercover agents from the Criminal investigation unit take me out on their beat.

UNDERCOVER AGENT: Do you see these guys? Some of them are burglars and some of them are drug dealers. This one also, he is a drug dealer.

Decriminalising personal use is supposed to allow police to concentrate on catching dealers whose activities are still illegal. But that's easier said than done under the new laws.

UNDERCOVER AGENT: That little guy there, sitting down over there, he is a drug dealer, we have arrested him.

REPORTER: You have arrested him recently?


REPORTER: And what happened?

UNDERCOVER AGENT: He went to the judge and the judge set him loose.

REPORTER: The judge what - Set him free? Right!

The police say at street level the dealers now have the upper hand.

POLICE (Translation): They can carry the small amount allowed to users and take advantage of being allowed this amount so if the police stop them;. 'No, I'm just a user.' They know we will take their drugs but won't arrest them - we'll just refer them to the commission. That's why this law is good for them - they take advantage of it to carry on dealing.

REPORTER: What was she smoking?


They also complain it's become more difficult get information from users on the streets in order to catch dealers.

POLICE (Translation): Because now they know that the worst that can happen is that they will be sent to the commission and in criminal terms, nothing will happen to them. If it was under the old law they would probably cooperate more with the police.

So after 10 years, has the Portuguese policy been a success? Brendan Hughes says it all depends on what set of statistics you look at.

BRENDAN HUGHES: Evaluating the drug law can be as complicated as you want to make it. The Portuguese system, if it works for them, they are very happy. Objectively evaluating it? You could do many different evaluations and depending on what you put in to the evaluation you will come to different conclusions.

One much discussed fact is that cocaine use in Portugal has risen. But it's a trend that continues right across Europe. Proving direct links to the introduction of the drug laws is difficult. What is clear is that the fight against drugs and drug addiction will probably get tougher as the European debt crisis spreads and austerity measures bite. These demonstrators are not the only ones worrying about the future.

REPORTER: Surely you're about to face massive funding cuts which will jeopardise the program right?

DR. JOAO GOULAO: Yes. I believe we are going to face very, very serious budgetary constraints.

And as things get worse, Goulao believes the services they offer will be needed more than ever.

DR. JOAO GOULAO: In this context of difficulties in the country I believe that more people is going to use problematic drugs and alcohol. More people will try to survive and to feed their children at home by smuggling, by small trafficking of drugs.

In the 90's the drug problem was Portugal's top political and social issue. These days it hardly rates a mention, perhaps the best measure of the policy's success.

BRENDAN HUGHES: In 10 years of governments in Portugal, and they have changed from left to centre right to left back to centre right, drugs is off the agenda. There is no discussion by opposition parties that they want to come back and bring in the old system. It seems like everyone in this country is happy with it.













Original Music composed by Vicki Hansen

30th October 2011