Dug Policy Profile Portugal

Maria Moreira, Brendan Hughes, Claudia Costa Storti & Frank Zobel
European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA)
Drug Policy Profiles
June 2011

dpp-portugalThis profile describes the national drug policy of Portugal, a policy that has attracted significant attention recently in the media and in policy debates. It considers national strategies and action plans, the legal context within which they operate and the public funds spent, or committed, to resource them. It also describes the political bodies and mechanisms set up to coordinate the response to the multi-faceted problem and the systems of evaluation that may help to improve future policy. The profile puts this information in context by outlining the size, wealth and economic situation of the country as a whole, as well as the historical development of the current policy.

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Portugal has been under the spotlight in recent years because of its decriminalisation of drug use and the implementation of the Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Abuse, managed primarily by the Ministry of Health rather than Justice or the Interior. This change is now 10 years old and has attracted criticism and support both at national and at international level.

This policy profile can contribute to a better understanding of the Portuguese model at three different levels. First, it demonstrates that the policy reform that occurred between 1999 and 2001 was the result of more than two decades of drug policy debates in which there had been ongoing tension between the criminalisation of drug use and the desire to help drug users.

The debates around the drug laws of 1983, 1993 and 2000 have many similarities and show a progressive move towards a model that clearly prioritises early intervention and treatment over any form of sanction. This transition is the result, among others, of an established and growing agreement among political parties in Parliament on the need to address drug use as a health issue and not as a criminal matter. Signs of such an agreement were first visible in 1963 and 1976 but came to the fore with the 1993 drug law which first allowed for a symbolic sanctioning of drug users.

What makes the Portuguese case special is that decriminalisation was not, as in other countries, associated with an increasing prevalence of cannabis use among young people and the consequent difficulties for law enforcement bodies in coping with it. In Portugal, problem drug users — mainly heroin users — were the focus of the policy discussions and it was with them (and their problems) in mind that it was decided to change the law in 2000.

The second aspect that can be clarified from this policy profile is that the decriminalisation of drug use should be understood as only one element of a larger policy change that has:

• progressively removed responsibilities from the Ministry of Justice to give them to the Ministry of Health;

• led to more integrated and detailed plans;

• highlighted the importance of evaluation as a policy management tool; and

• brought alcohol and drug policy closer together.

These changes have a strong public health orientation and this might be the best way to characterise the Portuguese drug policy today. While some want to see the Portuguese model as a first step towards the legalisation of drug use and others consider it as the new flagship of harm reduction, the model might in fact be best described as being a public health policy founded on values such as humanism, pragmatism and participation.

The Portuguese policy also reflects the main elements of drug policy convergence that have been observed in the European Union over the last two decades: the development of an overarching and detailed policy; the acceptance of harm reduction interventions; the recognition of the drug user as a person in need of help and not as a criminal; and the attempt to further link or integrate illicit and licit drug policies (Bergeron and Griffiths, 2006).

The third and final aspect that has been clarified in this paper is that Portugal’s drug policy — as with all other national drug policies — is unlikely to be a ‘magic bullet’. The country still has high levels of problem drug use and HIV infection, and does not show specific developments in its drug situation that would clearly distinguish it from other European countries that have a different policy. Portugal has, however, developed a policy that appears internally consistent and that tries to respond to drug problems in a pragmatic and innovative way. This is not always the case in modern drug policy. While individual elements of the drug policy and their implementation might suggest a more critical discussion is needed, it appears that Portugal has attempted to develop a transparent, coherent and well-structured policy.

The changes that were made in Portugal provide an interesting before-and-after study on the possible effects of decriminalisation, as the drug prevalence rates have not confirmed the theory that decriminalisation, or a less punitive approach, leads to increased use (Hughes and Stevens, 2010).

The coming years may well bring new challenges for Portuguese drug policy. After implementing several austerity plans, which have already had an impact on drug services, the government requested in early 2011 a rescue loan from the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which will be associated with further austerity measures. Following this, general elections in June 2011 resulted in a change in government that may translate into new orientations in public health and security policies. How all these developments will affect the content and the resources of the Portuguese drug policy in the coming years is a matter for future investigation.