A resounding success or a disastrous failure

Re-examining the interpretation of evidence on the Portuguese decriminalisation of illicit drugs
Caitlin Elizabeth Hughes & Alex Stevens
Drug and Alcohol Review, 31, 101–113
January 2012

publicationTwo observers and scholars of the 2001 Portuguese drug policy reform consider divergent accounts of the reform which viewed it as a ‘resounding success’ or a ‘disastrous failure’. Acknowledging from their own experience the inherent difficulties in studying drug law reform, Caitlin Hughes and Alex Stevens take the central competing claims of the protagonists and consider them against the available data.They remind us of the way all sides of the drug policy debates call upon and alternatively use or misuse ‘evidence’ to feed into discussions of the worth, efficacy and desirability of different illicit drug policies.In doing so they provide pause for thought for those of us who operate as drug policy researchers and drug policy advocates.

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The promulgation and uptake of different accounts of the Portuguese reform is a clear indicator of the interest in it. Considered analysis of the two most divergent accounts reveals that the Portuguese reform warrants neither the praise nor the condemnation of being a ‘resounding success’ or a ‘disastrous failure’, and that these divergent policy conclusions were derived from selective use of the evidence base that belie the nuanced, albeit largely positive, implications from this reform.

Given their potential for use in promoting or blocking drug law reform in Portugal and elsewhere, the selective uses of data and divergent conclusions are perhaps to be expected. Yet, while we found evidence that the misinterpretation of evidence may garner national or international support and contribute to the uptake of misconceptions and erroneous accounts (that may align with core beliefs), we contend that particularly for proponents of reform, that is, those challenging the status quo, deliberate misinterpretation of evidence is a high-risk game. The dissemination of incredibly certain and overly positive accounts provides easy grounds for discrediting reforms, ignoring the lessons that they provide and shifting public debate in directions that may prove detrimental to future proponents.

More broadly, the dissemination of loose accounts poses serious risks of devaluing the case for evidencebased drug policy. Indeed, the divergent accounts of the Portuguese reform provide ample grounds for questioning the implicit assumption that evidence will generate policies ‘devoid of dogma’. At a time when many countries in the developed world have shifted electorally to the right, there may be a temptation to throw evidence-based drug policy out, under the pretext that science proves nothing at all. Careful communication of claims is thus critical for both academics and advocates, so that evidence-informed accounts are more than mere ammunition for the policy battlefield.