Differences in culture, the availability of treatment and support services for drug-related issues, problems with accurate and consistent data collection, and variation between models of decriminalisation make evaluative comparisons between countries challenging.21 Similarly, attempting to ‘transplant’ any model wholesale to another country should involve rigorous consideration of the differences between the nations, and how the policy may need to be adapted for a new location.
Internationally, many countries including Denmark, France, Germany, and Norway have adopted some form of decriminalisation.9 The most commonly discussed example is that of Portugal, which has received considerable international attention – Australia’s Joint Committee on Law Enforcement visited Portugal in 2017 to investigate its model.9
A brief outline of the approach Portugal has adopted is provided here to illustrate one frequently cited model.
All drugs were decriminalised in 2001 on the advice of a multi-disciplinary expert committee. They recommended that the nation also focus efforts on prevention, education, harm reduction programs and expanding access to treatment as well as other support networks (e.g. connections to family).9
Trafficking remains a criminal offence. Personal use is distinguished from trafficking by a threshold quantity of a drug, set at approximately 10 days’ worth of personal supply.
In the Portuguese model, a person found possessing or using drugs is assessed by the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction (CDT).
People considered to be experiencing a dependence are referred to treatment. People who are not experiencing a dependence have other penalty options, such as referral to an educational intervention or paying a fine. The emphasis within this model is on drug use as a health and social issue and referring a person to interventions appropriate to their circumstances (e.g. if they’re experiencing a dependence).
Conflicting claims have been made about the outcomes of the Portuguese model.
These depend on what datasets were used and which indicators considered. For example, if researchers chose to consider indicators of either the ‘lifetime use’ of drugs or the ‘problematic use’ of drugs.12
A study analysing these conflicting claims determines that “while general population trends in Portugal suggest slight increases in lifetime and recent illicit drug use, studies of young and problematic drug users suggest that use has declined”.12
The Federal Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement noted in its final report that decriminalisation cannot account for all positive improvements in health outcomes because of the simultaneous investment in treatment services. However, they further noted that decriminalisation may enable people who use drugs to seek treatment without fearing potential criminal penalties.9 Reports indicate that people in pharmacotherapy (substitution) treatments increased by 147% between 1999 and 2003 – from 6,040 people to 14,877 people.22
Pressure on the criminal justice system appears reduced as fewer people are charged with drug offences and enter prison. By 2013 only 24% of prisoners were charged with drug offences compared to 44% in 1999.16
It is critical that the example of Portugal be examined in the full context of investment in treatment and recovery support. Perhaps the most important message from Portugal is that:
“Decriminalization is not a silver bullet. If you decriminalize and do nothing else, things will get worse. The most important part was making treatment available to everybody who needed it for free. This was our first goal.” - João Castel-Branco Goulão, Portugal’s National Coordinator on Drugs, Drug Addiction and the Harmful Use of Alcohol General-Director of SICAD.