The Drug Policy System In Portugal Criminology Essay

In contrary to popular believe, it is not the Netherlands that has the most liberal drugs law, it is actually the Portugal. With its reputation of being the first European country to abolish all the criminal penalties for the personal possession of drugs (decriminalising) and at the same time enabling them to manage and control their drug problem effectively than every other country in the West, it is impossible to deny that Portuguese is a model for drug policy in the Europe. In this assignment, this will be discussed further in depth along with the comparisons of Portugal with the other (European) countries that has different drug policies in order to support this argument.


There are different types of drug control method used by different countries all over the world. There are the prohibition of drugs, the legalisation and finally, the systems of drug policy (such as decriminalisation, harm reduction and medicalisation). The prohibition of drugs is mainly done by countries such as Sweden, United States of America (USA) and Islamic countries where they criminalised drugs by penalising the drug user. The next method of drug control, legalisation of drugs as we speak are not yet done by any countries in the world as many are usually against this idea. However, Uruguay has proposed the legalising of marijuana in order to stop drug trafficker’s problem in their country (Cave, 2012). The other drug control method is a system of drug policy reform that is done by Portugal which is to be studied in this essay. This drug policy reform system consists of three aspects which are the decriminalisation of drugs, looking the drug issue in a medical perspective (medicalisation) and also harm reduction programs to lower the harm done by drug use. Some other countries that have also decriminalised drug use are as follow: Netherlands, Spain and Czech Republic, although they are being carried out differently in each country.

On the 1st of July 2001, Portugal began a significant drastic policy change in its effort to reduce the escalating number of drug users and the problem related to drug use (particularly in the 1990’s- which this problem was seen to worsen) in the country. The flagship of the new policy is to decriminalise the use and possession of drugs for personal use, introduced as a new law, Law 30/2000. Under this new law, the personal use and possession of drugs are made to be only administrative offenses rather than criminal offences.

Portugal in the liberal drug policy coupled its decriminalisation with a public health reorientation with treatment and harm reduction put central in dealing with its drug problem. This decriminalisation also separates the drug user from the criminal justice system by identifying the drug user as ‘patient’, a health and social problem. In addition to this, the drug user will not have any criminal record for their drug offences but rather, an ‘administrative offence’. This distinguishes the drug policy from Spain where the policy is ‘de facto decriminalisation’ where the drug user will still be judged by the criminal court. It is the stigmatisation that arises from conviction of criminal onto the drug user is what that Portuguese policy explicitly aims to avert. This medicalisation view at the same time is also a great measure to help the society out in order for it to develop as the effects of criminal conviction on the drug user will apparently be complicated once they are back in the society such as in terms of seeking for employment and also, the loss of the drug user’s social esteem and friends or family (Pager, 2003). Together with that, the avoidance of stigma to the drug users will also make them more likely to seek for treatment and eventually have a better chance to succeed.

In dealing with the administrative offences, each of the eighteen districts in Portugal will have at least one committee that deals only with drug use in that district ( however, larger ones will have more than one committee). In general, the committees will consist of three people; two people from the medical sector (physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, or social workers) and another with a legal background. They are also better known as the Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction (Comissões para a Dissuasão da Toxicodependência), the CDTs. People who are found in possession of drugs will be referred to the CDTs by the police. The person will then be expected to appear before the CDT within 72 hours after found by the police. The CDTs use targeted responses to drug users, including sanctions such as community service, fines, suspension of professional licences and bans on attending designated places. But their primary aim is to dissuade new drug users and to encourage dependent drug users to enter treatment. Towards this end they determine whether individuals are occasional or dependent drug users and then apply an appropriate sanction (Hughes and Stevens, 2007). However, the committee cannot mandate compulsory treatment, although its orientation is to induce addicts to enter and remain in treatment. Additionally, because the committees will see the users repeatedly, they would build up a relationship of trust with the addict. This kind of treatment to the drug user is more likely to succeed rather than other methods as the drug user enter the doctor-patient relationship on a voluntary basis and they are also given the choice to proceed with it or not, hence empowering them (Merril et al, 2002). This is done differently in other countries such as in Sweden, where treatment is quite inaccessible as drug users will be more likely to be given penalty for drug offences and can only undergo free treatment by applying to their local social welfare board, but since the treatment is expensive, only a few thousands of applications are approved every year due to limited resources (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2007).

In addition to its medicalisation view and the law changes done by Portugal to combat its drug use problem, harm reduction programs were also seen to be put central in their new drug policy. Drug treatment in Portugal can be classified into four main categories the outpatient drug treatment, the day care centres, the detoxification units and the therapeutic communities. All of the centre provide both psychosocial and substitution treatment. Day centres offering outpatient care and withdrawal treatment are provided by both public and non-governmental services. Inpatient psychosocial treatment mostly consists of therapeutic communities and is mainly available in private services. There is also short-term and long-term residential psychosocial drug treatment provided (The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2011). As of 2011, there are about 40 projects that deal with drug users in order to make the drug use activity safer (Vale de Andrade and Carapinha, 2010). As harm reduction acknowledges that the drug users are in most cases unable to go on abstinence but still need to be helped, the common methods to reduce harm consists of the following: needle exchange program in order to reduce the inevitable risks commonly associated with needle sharing (such as HIV) and also, special designated injection sites with medical supervision to educate drug users the safer injection techniques and to get them off the streets. Additionally, methadone and buprenorphine subscriptions are also used so as to help street heroin addict in reduction of their number by curbing cravings (Christie et al, 2008). This measure of harm reduction and treatments provided by the country has seen a positive outcome as there have been significant reductions in Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C for people in the treatment and also, between the year 1999 & 2003 there was a 17% reduction in notifications of new, drug related cases of HIV (Beagrie, 2011). The effect of decriminalising also increased the number of people going in seeking for the treatment voluntarily. The treatment will also take place faster and increase the effectiveness as the drug users do not have to wait for the long process going through law enforcements such as that in Sweden and Spain.

Although the prohibition of drug possession is done through administrative regulation, rather than criminal penalties, one of the many 13 objectives of the strategy, is to increase the enforcement of laws prohibiting trafficking and distribution of drugs in Portugal (Moreira et al, 2007). Before the new drug law was introduced in 2001, the time and resources of the justice system were greatly stretched when tasked with combating drug consumption. For instance, in 2000, 7592 charges for drug consumption were made by police, putting a huge strain on the courts and prisons. One year after the policy changes, 6026 users, instead of going through the traditional route of prosecution and incarceration, were referred to dissuasion groups. This not only lessened the burden on the justice system, but also allowed the police to focus on the real criminals in the drug industry. Charges for trafficking increased by 11% when compared to the four years prior to decriminalisation (Hughes and Stevens, 2007) and the police were able to target traffickers instead of low level users. By combining decriminalisation with alternative therapeutic/educational responses to drug dependency, the burden of drug law enforcement on the overall criminal justice system is greatly reduced (Beckley Foundation, 2012). Furthermore according to research, drug treatment is the most cost-effective way of addressing drug problem compare to imprisoning the drug user which is very expensive. Moreover, drug treatment was found to be able to cut crime by 80%, other than its ability to help the society’s health by decreasing the risk of contracting drug related disease such as HIV and hepatitis. However, this policy is not effective at the moment in country like United States and Sweden as there is a severe shortage drug treatment programs provided by the countries and the fact that treatment is not made free of charge as it is done in Portugal (News Briefs, 1998).

The decriminalising of drug has also been proven to diminish the size of the black market for drugs in the Portugal. This is done by ‘stealing’ the consumers of the drug dealers, which are actually the real criminals here in the war against drug. The Portugal government supplied the drug substitutions for free of charge as a part of their drug treatment hence there is no demand for the drugs supplied by the dealers. As there is no more demand in the black market drug dealing, they are mostly will be out of business, therefore will eradicate them (Swan, 2012). In another argument regarding the decriminalising of drug in Portugal and the black market is that by bringing drug (replacements) into the legitimate economy, it will also ultimately separate the drugs from the black market itself. This will greatly reduce the risk by the black market dealers where hard drugs are often pushed onto buyers, who are only in to buy less dangerous drugs than promoted by the dealers. This will help a lot in decreasing the risk of exposure on the drug users to a more dangerous drug. In essence, this will also help the removal of the ‘gateway effect’ in which this undermines many arguments against the decriminalising of drugs (such as the Sweden’s ‘zero tolerance for drugs’) policy and shows that users will not be forced by dealers to buy cocaine, for instance, when all they want is marijuana (Herrington, 2012). Furthermore by making the drug substitutes available, it will bring to an end to the common association of drug taking and being ‘cool’ or the ‘forbidden fruit’ theory among the younger group. The usual use factor for drugs for them is usually peer pressure, to be accepted by others and look or feel as ‘cool’ as the other youth who are also taking drugs. This is usually caused by the desire to do something different or rebel out of the norm. Therefore, by making drug replacements available, drug taking will no longer be an activity that is attractive or unordinary for them (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2012).

Ever since this new drug policy came into place in the year 2001, numerous positive evaluations have been observed instantly regarding the drug use problem across the country. One of the primary indicators on drug use available in Portugal concerns the lifetime prevalence amongst school student. According to the statistics collected the changes in lifetime prevalence of drug use among students aged 16-18 has gone down in the year 2003 comparatively before the new policy was introduced in the year 1999. The decrease of prevalence for the number of the usage of heroin for the students is 2.5% in 1999 and 1.8% in 2003. Whereas, for cannabis it is seen to be increasing, as in 1999, the number is 9.4% and in 2003, 15.1%. These figures suggest that, while cannabis use among young people may have increased, heroin use has decreased. Although some argued that this decline is not statistically significant for Portugal, the neighbouring country, Italy however saw an increase during the same period of the decline in Portugal intravenous drug use (Beckley Foundation, 2012). This just strengthened the argument that this new policy works up to a certain extent instantaneously after its introduction. Also, as desired with the substantial improvement of drug user to seek for treatment, the Portuguese authorities have recorded a reduction in the numbers of heroin users who are entering treatment for the first time. It seems that initiation into heroin use is falling, while cannabis use is rising towards the levels which are also experienced in some other European countries. This indication is supported by the pattern of referrals to the CDT (IDT, 2007) in which it was found that there is about 28% increase between the year 2001 and 2005 for the referral of cannabis drug user while for heroin a decrease of 55% was seen in terms of the referrals to the CDT. As there has been an increase in the young people appearing before CDTs for cannabis, and a decrease in those appearing for heroin the explanation for this is it is a part of the corresponding trend increase as part of the other European nations. This increase is also because of the increasing self-reported drug use due to the reduced stigma attached to the drug use compared to pre-decriminalisation (Hughes and Stevens, 2007).

As more people are seeking and undergoing drug treatment, the amount of addiction was also seen to decrease and more importantly, this also enable the country to manage and reduce the harms related to drug use as Portugal has had a serious problem with the transmission of HIV and other blood borne viruses. For instance during the year 1999 Portugal had the highest rate of HIV amongst injecting drug users in the European Union (The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug, 2000). This is why the major target of the Portuguese public health approach to drug use is the harm reduction, with opiate substitution treatment and needle exchange being an important element of the Portuguese response. As a result, between the year 1999 and 2003, there was a 17% reduction in the notifications of new, drug related cases of HIV (Tavares et al, 2005). Likely for the same reasons, since 2000, there were also reductions in the numbers of tracked cases of Hepatitis C and B in treatment centres nationwide, despite the increasing numbers of people in treatment (Greenwald, 2009).

According to Greenwald (2009) beyond the disease, the mortality rates of the drug related was also found to be decreasing as well. In absolute numbers, drug-related deaths from 2002 to 2006 for every prohibited substance have either declined significantly or remained constant compared with 2001. In 2000, for instance, the number of deaths from opiates (including heroin) was 281. That number has decreased steadily since decriminalisation, to 133 in 2006. This fact is also supported by other findings that the total drug related death in the country almost halved between the year of 1999 and 2003, which are 369 and 152, respectively. The large drop in deaths is also associated to decline in the use of heroin. This fall in deaths related to opiates (heroin) has been linked to the big increase in the numbers of heroin users who have entered substitution treatment (Tavares et al, 2005), as substitution treatment has repeatedly been found to be effective in reducing the mortality rate of the opiate users. It is also an indication of the falling levels of heroin use (Hughes and Stevens, 2007).

Unlike the Netherlands and Switzerland, the fears of ‘drug tourism’ with the decriminalisation of drugs have turned out to be completely untrue as this has simply not been the case. In accordance to this, approximately 95% of people sent to CDTs were of Portuguese origin, which implies that tourists are not travelling to the country to abuse its liberal approach to narcotics (Beckley Foundation, 2012). After five years since the introduction of this new policy, both the general and the youth populations’ prevalence of drug use in the country are below European Union (EU) average. Also, the overall population prevalence of drug use is actually the lowest compare to the other EU nations, of below 10% as the highest is above 30% for Denmark. To make it better by and large, the usage rates for each category of drugs is found to be lower in the EU than it is in the non- EU states with a far more criminalised approach to drug usage such as the USA which has the highest level of usage for illegal cocaine and cannabis in the world. With the USA approach to drug criminalisation that appears to cause a higher drug usage rates among Americans, and also this trend in general, appear to be worsening, contrasted with the far better rates in decriminalised Portugal. This suggests that severe criminalisation laws against drug use do not necessarily produce lower drug usage, as instead data suggest that the contradictory may be true (Greenwald, 2009). However, too liberal effort in order to combat the drug use such as the Netherlands lenient way of dealing with soft drugs policy is proven to be ineffective as well as even though they too, decriminalise drugs like Portugal, they do not actually practice and make the harm reduction and CDT programs in dealing with the drug users in its drug policy. Along with this, contrasting to Portugal, they in a way legalise the selling of certain drugs through the ‘coffee shops’ hence, attracting ‘drug tourists’ from all over the world. As a confirmation, the drug lifetime experience prevalence of the Dutch population is on the average, not the lowest along with the fact that Netherlands is the most crime-prone nation in Europe with most of its drug addicts live on state welfare payments and by committing crimes (World and I, 2012). Additionally, the number of drug induced deaths recorded for Netherlands is higher than that in the Portugal which is 129 in the year 2008, compare to only 94 in the Portugal (The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2011).


The drug policy system in Portugal is definitely a model drug policy for the Europe as can be analysed throughout the essay. Although it is liberal in its own way, it still try to reduce as much as it can the prevalence of drug use along with putting harm reduction and treatment programmes central in its war against drugs. The Portuguese policy tries to avoid the use of harsh policy such as criminalising as done in countries like Sweden and the USA as it is proven to only backfire. Other than that, it is also not as liberal as it is done in the Netherlands where, certain drug use are treated in such a lenient manner which is also proven to be ineffective comparatively to the one done by Portugal. Moreover, with the successful and positive evaluations ever since the policy was implemented in 2001 that managed to bring out a country that was once the most problematic in the EU in terms of its drug use, to the current lowest drug use overall prevalence, it is doubted why it will not work for the other European countries where the social-economic background is mostly similar.

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