Can Britain learn from Portugal’s liberalised drug laws?
The drug policy of the UK has, for years, taken the line of being ‘hard on drugs’, aiming to stamp out use and drug related crime through ever tougher laws and regulations. It means that simply for possessing a class B drug such as cannabis, a person can be sent to prison for up to 5 years. For a Class A drug like ecstasy this is 7 years and intent to supply could lead to life imprisonment.
Despite these increasingly harsh measures, levels of drug use in Britain have remained among the highest in Europe. A 2007 report by the UK Drug Policy Commission showed that Britain had the second highest number of drug related deaths in Europe and the highest addiction rates and rates of multi-drug use.
Is the solution, then, to impose even harsher punishments on drug use? The same report concluded that while jail sentences had increased, drug use had become more common. The harsher sentences were seemingly having little or no effect.
This is where, it seems, Britain can learn from the change of direction that Portugal has taken. In July 2001, Portugal declared a mass decriminalisation of all drugs. Decriminalisation, in this case, means an individual is permitted to possess enough of a substance for personal use and while the drugs still technically remain illegal, possession and use is considered an administrative infraction rather than an actual criminal offence.
So what has this led to in practice for the drug issue in Portugal? One of the most common fears of such a move is that it will lead to an increase in use, especially amongst the young, based on the perception that the government is giving its approval to the practice. It seems this is not the case. The prevalence of drug use in Portugal among young people has declined for almost all substances, as shown in the figures below.
The potential for an increase in drug tourism was another concern. However, it appears to have been largely unfounded. Around 95% of drug offenses in Portugal are committed by Portuguese citizens compared with close to zero by citizens from other EU countries.