Did Portugal Really Legalize All Drugs?

Lisbon, Portugal

I hear this a lot: “America should legalize all drugs because Portugal did it and everything was fine.” I thought it was time to explain exactly what Portugal did do in relation to their drug problem and what the result was.

In 1999, Portugal approved their National Strategy for the Fight Against Drugs as a way of coping with runaway addiction problems. Portugal had been a relatively closed country between 1933 and 1974 and then the floodgates opened to allow outside markets and influences into the country. Along with commerce, drugs like marijuana and heroin flooded in as well.

The population that not been exposed to these drugs had no education on the harm that was possible. Addiction and death rose in a towering wave of devastation. In the 1980s, one in ten citizens was addicted to heroin.

There were various ideas on how to combat this problem but none of them were very successful. In the late 1990s, the idea of decriminalizing personal drug possession gained popularity.

Please note: They decriminalized the possession of small amounts of addictive substances, enough that an individual would typically use in 10 day’s time. They legalized nothing. It’s still illegal to use drugs. But being a drug user is treated as a health problem, not a criminal problem.

They also didn’t decriminalize drug dealing or trafficking. A person with more than a personal supply of a drug will still be treated like a criminal. There was no intention that drugs should be allowed to freely wash through Portuguese communities. According to one analysis by the Institute for the Study of Labor in Germany:

“The focus on treatment, care, and rehabilitation as an alternative to criminal punishment of drug users is intended to stabilize the demand while a more effective law enforcement targeting drug trafficking and production was designed to reduce the supply of illicit drugs.”

So What Really Happens in Portugal?

A man pulls a small supply of drugs out of his pocket.

Decriminalizing personal drug possession did not mean that a person found with drugs would simply be told to go on his way and have a good day. He (or she) receives a citation to appear before a local Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction. Police seize any drugs found. If necessary to ensure the individual appears before the Commission, police are authorized to detain the person.

When seen by the Commission, if the user is not addicted and has no prior record or if the person is addicted and agrees to treatment, there will probably be no further action taken.

Otherwise, the Commission can impose a variety of penalties, for example:

  • A fine equal to a month’s pay
  • Revocation of public benefits being received
  • Cancellation of the right to carry a gun
  • Prohibition of the privilege to visit certain people or places
  • Loss of professional licenses
  • Requirement to report to the Commission or health services regularly
  • Assignment of a specific number of hours of community service

What many people miss is the fact that the 1999 strategy was not a dramatic change from prior methods of dealing with drug use in Portugal. Even in the years before this strategy was implemented, the practice was not to incarcerate people found using drugs. The 1999 strategy simply stated and organized the country’s policy in relation to personal drug use and the way it would be addressed to improve the health of the country.

The Outcome

This change did not have the effect of eliminating the drug problem in the country. Indeed, quantities of heroin, cocaine and hashish seized in the country increased after decriminalization—hashish, dramatically so. For example:

Police at the railway station in Lisbon.
Lisbon police patrol the railway station/Photo by mimohe, Shutterstock
  • In February 2018, police seized 5,000 doses of cocaine from a traveler at the Lisbon airport.
  • Also in February, police seized 4.5 tons of benzyl methyl ketone, a substance used to make synthetic drugs like ecstasy.
  • In March 2018, 2.5 tonnes of cocaine were seized from a warehouse in Lisbon.

But it did channel more people into treatment. The emphasis shifted from punishment to recovery. Those who were ordered to appear before the Commission stated that they were less afraid for their futures than if they had to appear in a criminal case. The government guarantees drug treatment for those who are addicted and provides subsidies to employers who hire those who are addicted.

There are estimated to be about 30,000 problem drug users. Nearly 17,000 people receive treatment with medication such as methadone. Nearly half of those entering treatment are there to get help for heroin addiction, about a third need help for cannabis addiction, and 12% were addicted to cocaine. While overdose deaths are low, they have been climbing slightly since 2011.

Perhaps one of the best outcomes of this approach is the dramatic reduction in new cases of HIV related to injecting drugs.

It is important to note that Portugal has adopted a far more aggressive drug prevention program targeting students than other European countries. Drug prevention is taught in sciences, biology and civic education classes.

While a person who wants to create a more permissive atmosphere for drug use might say “Portugal legalized all drugs and they did great,” there is obviously more to the story. Law enforcement, prevention, referral to treatment and government-guaranteed treatment were also organized to relieve the citizenry of the burden of drug use and addiction.

Further reading:

Drug prevention in Portugal

Annual report on Portugal’s drug use 2017

In Portugal, Drug Use Is Treated As A Medical Issue, Not A Crime

Portugal’s drug policy, Treating not punishing

Uses and Abuses of Drug Decriminalization in Portugal


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.