Decriminalization and Public Health: The Portuguese Drug Policy Paradigm


Portugal’s drug policy is widely cited as an example of how to curtail the addiction to drugs without overdependence on mass incarceration (Grant, 2011). In 2001, Portugal decriminalised the possession of all drugs intended for personal use which transformed addiction into public health crisis from punishable crime (Hughes & Steven, 2007). Werb et al. (2011) report that decriminalisation of ownership of small drug quantities in Portugal saved addicts from the harms inflicted by criminal justice systems on such people.


Background Information

In the UK, possession of small amounts of controlled substances amounts to an offence punishable by law (Beaumont, 2010). Burton et al. (2014) observe that policy formulation about drugs is challenging in the current multilateral nature of global nations. While Portugal’s policy has been considerably successful in addressing the drug menace, it is not easily transferable and applicable to another country given the different cultural, political, economic and historical contexts (Beaumont, 2010). In fact, Hudson and Lowe (2009) clearly demonstrate that policy transfer is a multifaceted and complex dimension of the policy process. Therefore, there is the need for more experimentation and localised strategies to determine the best policies that would be more preventative at the least costs.

The proposed research project's primary objective is to assess whether Portugal's drug policy is more preventative than the UK’s. The study will compare and contrast elements of prevention of both countries’ drug policies and use evidence-based principles to determine which country’s policies are more effective in prevention as compared to the other.

This project will assist in understanding the foundations of Portugal’s and UK’s drug policies and why the former’s approach, though radical, has been surprisingly successful in addressing abuse and addiction to drugs. Similarly, it will investigate the UK context and examine what has informed the current approaches in policymaking. Afterwards, the research will draw from the evidence presented in existing literature to determine which of the two countries’ drug policies are more preventative and hence effective in reducing abuse and addiction to drugs.

Research Question

Are Portugal’s policies towards drugs more preventative than the UK’s?

Research Aim

To investigate, demonstrate and explain foundations of drug policies in Portugal and the UK and their effectiveness as intervention aids and in preventing drug abuse.

Literature Review

In 1999, Portugal was leading in HIV rates among injecting drugs users in the European Union. Decriminalisation of drug possession in Portugal did not legalise drug use in the country but resulted in significant changes in the welfare of drug users. According to Hughes and Stevens (2007), the main features of the changes were as follows: repealing penal sanctions invoked for drug possession and introduction of referral systems to commissions for dissuasion of drug addiction. The committees are known as Comissões para a Dissuasão da Toxicodependência (CDTs) and have become the success factors in the implementation of the drug policy. The primary aim of CDTs is to encourage addicts to enter treatment and dissuade new users (Reuter & Stevens, 2007). In line with the new policy, Portugal focused police resources on people who profit from trade in drugs to curtail supply.

According to Domoslawki (2011), the prevalence rate of substance abuse among young people has significantly declined. Chatwin (2007) observes that decriminalisation has aided in accurate reporting particularly among students. For instance, decriminalisation appears to have signalled to young people that marijuana is socially acceptable and hence students have been found to be more willing to report it. Drawing from labelling theory, it is evident that behaviour and self-identity of drug users are influenced by the terms used to describe them. From 2001 – 2007, there were major reductions in defining concepts such as drug supply, drug-related deaths, drug-related diseases and drug-related crimes not to mention a significant removal of the burden on the country’s criminal justice system (Grant, 2011). Numerous authors, (Beaumont, 2010; Burton, et al., 2014; Greenwald, 2009) have clearly demonstrated that Portugal's approach was based on "nothing to lose" mindset but has become a huge success in ridding the country of the costly drug menace.

In the UK, drugs are controlled substances, and the law punishes offenders found in possession of drugs irrespective of their quantities. The Drugs Act of 1964 addressed drug trafficking and production rather than punishing drug users (Chatwin, 2007). The Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 classified drugs into three classes from the most highly regulated to the least regulated and introduced penalties depending on the categories of drugs. In 1991, the country initiated efforts to integrate criminal justice and health to reduce the separation between penal and medical responses that had prevailed in the past.

From this chapter, it is evident that UK and Portugal have made substantive efforts by introducing progressive policies to deal with drug addicts and users. In both countries, the policies are both interventional and preventative. It is anticipated that the statistical evidence will provide the basis for determining the most effective policy in prevention.

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The proposed project will employ a qualitative research approach to gathering data. The main aim is to gain an informed understanding of the foundation of policies, motivations and opinions from other researchers. For this reason, the research will employ a pragmatic approach. As such, it will use numerous case studies to elaborate the comparisons and differences between Portugal’s and UK’s drug policies. Secondary data will be sourced from international and longitudinal studies performed by reputed international bodies such as Eurostat, OECD and UNODC. Insights will also be sought from journals published in various databases such as Science Direct, IEEE Xplore and Google Scholar. Case studies will be analysed systematically by identifying ideas, themes and specific words. A comparative study of harmonised information will be undertaken to quantify the results. These processes will adequately address the research question.

Some of the anticipated difficulties arise from case studies’ inherent lack of rigour and the perception that they cannot be generalised. Again, case studies might present different results which may alter the direction of the research (Bennett, et al., 2005).

The bias in the research will arise from the subjective nature of secondary research concerning researchers' opinions. In both primary and secondary research, the major limitation is the reference to investigators' themes and views which may be biased to suit different needs (George & Bennett, 2005).

Research Timeline

Research Timeline


  • Beaumont, P., 2010. What Britain could learn from Portugal's drugs policy. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 29 January 2017].
  • Bennett, A., Barth, A. & Rutherford, K., 2005. Case studies and theory development in the social sciences. New York: Routledge.
  • Burton, R., Thomson, F., Visintin, C. & Wright, C., 2014. United Kingdom drug situation: Annual report to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) 2014. London: United Kingdom Focal Point at Public Health England.
  • Chatwin, C., 2007. Multi-level governance: The way forward for European illicit drug policy?. International Journal of Drug Policy, Volume 18, pp. 494-502.
  • chultze-Kraft, M. & Befani, B., 2014. Getting high on impact: The challenge of evaluating drug policy. Swansea: Gloabl Drug Policy Observatory.
  • Domosławski, A., 2011. Drug policy in Portugal: The benefits of decriminalizing drug use. s.l.:Open Society Foundations.
  • George, A. & Bennett, A., 2005. Case studies and theory development in the social sciences. Cambridge(MA): MIT Press.
  • Grant, S., 2011. Drug decriminalisation in Portugal: Setting the record straight. London: Transform.
  • Greenwald, G., 2009. Drug decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for creating fair and successful drug policies. Washington D.C: Cato Institute.
  • Hudson, J. & Lowe, S., 2009. Understanding the policy process: Analysing welfare policy and practice. s.l.:Policy Press.
  • Hughes, C. & Steven, A., 2007. The effects of decriminalisation of drug use in Portugal. London: The Beckley Foundation.
  • Lindsay, C., 2013. Principles of drug addiction treatment: a research-based guide. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 10 February 2016].
  • Reuter, P. & Stevens, A., 2007. An analysis of UK drug policy: A monograph prepared fro the UK Drug Policy Commission. London: UK Drug Policy Commission .
  • Room, R. & Rubman, D., 2010. Politics and science in classifying the dangers of drugs.. Sydney:
  • Swank, D., 2002. Global capital, political institutions and policy change in developed welfare states. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Werb, D. et al., 2011. Effect of drug law enforcement on drug market violence: A systematic review. International Journal of Drug Policy, Volume 30, pp. 411-415.

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