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.
- Loxley W, Toumbourou J, Stockwell T, Haines B, Scott K, Godfrey C, Waters E, Patton G, Fordham R, Gray D, Marshall J. 1. Legal Information Access Centre. Chapter 4: What the law deals with. Library Council of New South Wales; 2011. Available from: https://legalanswers.sl.nsw.gov.au/hot-topics-australian-legal-system/what-law-deals.
- Benfer I, Zahnow R, Barratt M, Maier L, Winstock A, Ferris J. The impact of drug policy liberalisation on willingness to seek help for problem drug use: A comparison of 20 countries. International Journal of Drug Policy. 2018;56:162-75.
- Single E, Christie P, Ali R. The Impact of Cannabis Decriminalisation in Australia and the United States. Journal of Public Health Policy. 2000;21(2):157-86.
- Hughes C, Stevens A. The effects of decriminalization of drug use in Portugal: Discussion paper. Oxford; 2007.
- Baker J, Goh D. The cannabis cautioning scheme three years on: an implementation and outcomes evaluation. Sydney; 2004.
- Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. Pre-Budget submission 2017-18: Submission to Treasury. Canberra; 2017.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016: detailed findings. Canberra: AIHW; 2017.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Alcohol and other drug treatment services in Australia: state and territory summaries, Summary. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare; 2019. Available from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/ alcohol-other-drug-treatment-services/aodts-state-territory-summaries/contents/summary.
- Joint Committee on Law Enforcement. Inquiry into crystal methamphetamine (ice) Final Report. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; 2018.
- Cabral TS. The 15th anniversary of the Portuguese drug policy: Its history, its success and its future. Drug Science, Policy and Law. 2017;3:2050324516683640.
- Donnelly N, Hall W, Christie P. The effects of partial decriminalisation on cannabis use in South Australia, 1985 to 1993. Australian Journal of Public Health. 1995;19(3):281-7.
- Hughes CE, Stevens A. A resounding success or a disastrous failure: re-examining the interpretation of evidence on the Portuguese decriminalization of illicit drugs. New Approaches to Drug Policies: Springer; 2015. p. 137-62.
- European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and Serviço de Intervenção nos Comportamentos. Portugal: Country Drug Report 2017. Lisbon; 2017.
- Hughes C, Ritter A, Chalmers J, Lancaster K, Barratt M, Moxham-Hall V. Decriminalisation of drug use and possession in Australia - A briefing note. Sydney: Drug Policy Modelling Program, NDARC, UNSW Australia; 2016.
- Hughes C, Ritter A, Cowdery N, Phillips B. Australian threshold quantities for ‘drug trafficking’: Are they placing drug users at risk of unjustified saction? Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology; 2014.
- Law Reform Road and Community Safety Committee. Inquiry into Drug Law Reform. Melbourne: Parliament of Victoria; 2018.
- Ritter A, Hughes C, Shanahan M. Bulletin No. 26: Models for the decriminalisation of the personal use and possession of drugs. Sydney: Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre DPMP; 2018.
- Hughes C, Cowdery N, Ritter A. Deemed supply in Australian drug trafficking laws: a justifiable legal provision? Current Issues in Criminal Justice. 2015;27(1):1-20.
- Allard T, Stewart A, Chrzanowski A, Ogilvie J, Birks D, Little S. Police diversion of young offenders and Indigenous over- representation. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology; 2010.
- Shanahan M, Hughes C, McSweeney T. Police diversion for cannabis offences: Assessing outcomes and cost-effectiveness. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology; 2017.
- Room R, Fischer B, Hall W, Reuter P, Lenton S. Cannabis policy: moving beyond stalemate: USA: Oxford University Press; 2010.
- Greenwald G. Drug decriminalisation in Portugal: Lessons for creating fair and successful drug policies. Washington: DC; 2009.