Cannabis / Marijuana, EDITORIAL
Portugal's Experiment in Drug Decriminalization Has Been a Success
By Mark Thornton - July 10, 2015

This month, Portugal celebrates fourteen years of drug decriminalization. The grand experiment is now considered a happy success considering it was adopted out of desperation and in the face of dire warnings from proponents of the global drug war.

What Led to Decriminalization

During the mid-twentieth century, Portugal experienced fifty years of military dictatorship, and when leftist democratic control was reestablished in 1974, many expatriate Portuguese returned to Portugal from its colonies. Of course, many of these people were dissidents, outsiders, and outcasts, and many of them used illegal drugs.

Over the next twenty-five years, there was a surge in drug use, drug abuse, addiction, overdoses, and eventually a very substantial prevalence of HIV/AIDS and other dirty-needle-related diseases. At the peak of this drug epidemic the rate of drug addiction and HIV/AIDS infection was "considerably higher" than the rest of Europe according to Dr. João Goulão, the longtime drug czar of Portugal.

Goulão was on the eleven member anti-drug commission that formulated law 30/2000 which decriminalized all drugs starting July 1, 2001.

The "grand experiment" seems to be the result of two factors. The first is that Portugal is a relatively poor European country and was unable to fight the war on drugs on every front.

The second factor is that the commission was relatively non-partisan and simply adopted the common sense notion that drug abuse and addiction are not criminal problems for the police to solve. Drug abuse and addiction are medical and psychological problems that are better solved by the individual with the help of professionals and social pressures.

Baby Steps Away from the Drug War

Decriminalization is just one baby step away from the war on drugs, and drug smugglers and dealers are still sought out and punished. Individuals are only permitted to possess very small amounts of illegal drugs without being punished as a dealer. Under current laws, you can still be arrested and sent to counselors, but you do not face imprisonment unless you are an uncooperative multiple offender.

While certainly not ideal, decriminalization has straightforward benefits over complete prohibition. First, otherwise law-abiding citizens will not be criminalized for possessing illegal drugs. Second, drug addicts will be more likely to seek professional help when government treats addiction as a medical rather than criminal problem. Third, the police will have more resources to address real crimes and possibly to provide subsidies for drug treatment programs. Fourth, drug addicts will turn away from dangerous synthetic drug substitutes and turn more to the natural illegal drugs like marijuana and cocaine. Fifth, if needles are legal too, then you should see fewer cases of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. Sixth, junkie ghettos will shrink in size and visibility. In sum, decriminalization should result in fewer people dying and being sent to prison and more people living "normal" lives.

Of course, the biggest concern prior to decriminalization was the quantity of illegal drugs consumed. That concern is even more dominant when discussing outright legalization of drugs. Back when Portugal was considering decriminalization, I was interviewed by the "Time Magazine of Portugal," and the reporter stressed that this was the prime concern in Portugal at the time. I responded that you cannot know the answer to that question in advance, that you will never know the answer to that question, and that the question was unimportant.

Too many factors impact the markets for illegal drugs to be able to say definitively that drug consumption will increase or decrease after decriminalization. Factually, statistics on drug consumption are necessarily imprecise. This is true for statistics prior to and after decriminalization. The existing statistics are based either on things like surveys and educated guesswork with the actual facts mired in the secretive world of the black market. Consumption aside, the real question is whether prohibition does more harm than decriminalization and the answer is yes.

When I was pressed by the reporter for a guess, I responded that overall consumption would not change much; it might increase some in the short run and would decrease in the long run, unless the drugs were legalized in the future for medical or recreational uses. However, I stressed that there are undeniable benefits (listed above) and there is no reason that consumption would explode due to decriminalization.

Many Still Refuse to See the Success

It is hard to blame the Portuguese for their concerns at that time. Decriminalization was considered a dangerous experiment and a dodge of the United Nations' rules of the global war on drugs. However, mainstream drug policy experts remained "skeptical" of the Portuguese experiment even after nearly eight years of experience.

Mark Kleiman, director of the drug policy analysis program at UCLA, claims that Portugal was an unrealistic model. Peter Reuter, another leading drug policy expert, claimed that despite achieving its central goal (decreased consumption) it could be explained by the fact that Portugal was a small country and that drug abuse is cyclical in nature.

Remarkably, Dr. Goulão, who helped design and oversee the new law seems uninformed and perplexed at the positive outcomes even to this very day. He was recently quoted as saying: "it's very difficult to identify a causal link between decriminalization by itself and the positive tendencies we have seen."

One picture that sums up the Portuguese success story shows that Portugal has the second lowest death rate from illegal drugs in all of Europe after experiencing one of the worst rates with prohibition.

It is also interesting to note that the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is headquartered in Lisbon. One analyst who works at EMCDDA, Frank Zobel, calls Portugal's policy "the greatest innovation in this field" and "that the policy is working. Drug consumption has not increased severely. There is no mass chaos. For me as an evaluator, that's a very good outcome."

It is a happy anniversary for the Portuguese, but a scary one for all the drug warriors around the world whose incomes and power depend on continued ignorance about the effects of prohibition.

This article contributed courtesy of The Mises Institute. To read more of Mark Thornton's thoughts on the drug war and other issues, see The Daily Bell interviews with him here and here.

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Posted in Cannabis / Marijuana, EDITORIAL
  • Bill Ross

    “Portugal’s Experiment in Drug Decriminalization Has Been a Success ”

    better hide this fact because “success” is a matter of perspective. Decriminalization has lifted a huge unproductive / damaging cost. And further, deprived criminal elements of proceeds of crime.

    For those who profit by creating and pretending to deal with problems and their minions such as law, prisons, police, etc, this is a major loss of make work programs, loss of fraudulent appearing to be “of use” pretext for the resources they pointlessly consume. A massive FAILURE and loss of resources for our enemy the state.

  • William Gill

    I don’t see USA anywhere on the chart. Like to know where we sit.

    • bouf

      Just Florida alone would require the chart to be extended out to the right by healthy margin.

    • We just linked the graphic in that article to its source (should have done that initially) at Wonkblog. ( More info in that article.

      In the US, CDC lists mortality statistics, including from drug-related deaths, but it’s a bit hard to compare apples to apples without breakdown specifically by age, per million in that age bracket, as the European Monitoring centre did for European nations. Not certain how they define “drug-related,” either as compared to CDC. Nonetheless, US drug-related deaths is extremely high. If we counted among that number death-by-cop for drug-war related law-enforcement encounter it would surely increase even more …

      • Bill Ross

        coroners often LIE to families regarding “cause of death” for “compassionate reasons” (side effect: ineptness of drug warriors unstated)

        Take these “stats” with the same mountain of salt as you do when considering economic, employment, inflation and school performance (all self-reporting) “stats”

    • PJ London

      Here is a clue, “European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction”

  • Alberto

    One of the main reasons that the US economy is in such sad shape is the fact that massive amounts of laundered drug profits go untaxed. If all illegal drug money were to enter the economy and subjected to taxation most of our wealth distribution problems would disappear. Know who rules the banks and you will know who profits from the misery of the addicted. Same as it ever was.

    • Don Duncan

      Less taxes, more economic freedom. Our “wealth distribution problem” is institutionalized theft, i.e., taxes & fiat money. Too bad the majority live in fear of self governance, freedom. Too bad they choose slavery, and then force it on everybody else. So much for “land of the brave and home of the free”. Too bad its “same as it ever was, worldwide”.

    • kenvandoren


      I would argue that the real reason the economy languishes is too much government, too much taxation that takes over half our GDP.

      AND the fact that the FED and fractional reserve banking have created huge misallocations of resources that are not sustainable.

      INcreased tax collections is absolutely the LAST reason I would want to decriminalize or legalize drugs. The government has too much and spends too much already.

  • Don Duncan

    I am disappointed to learn that what is called decriminalization is really less stringent prohibition. But not surprised to learn that even a little more freedom can have remarkably good results. And not surprised to learn that people who are rewarded by initiating force will deny any evidence that they are immoral and impractical. Very few are honest enough to admit that they are wrong when it will cost them, on small or big issues.

    Hell, even the person who had the courage to challenge the Christen ethics and replace it, was on the wrong side with respect to voluntarism, and insisted on defending government. Her many contradictory essays on this matter notwithstanding, e.g., “Who will protect us from our protectors?”

    • beaker55


  • Praetor

    The only way to deal with drug addiction is with a compassionate heart, not a boot to the head. The Portuguese came to this realization, now the rest of the world needs too.

  • the one

    What the heck kind of drugs do they have in Estonia? Their death rate is double the rest of the EU… WTF?

    • Good question. According to this article (, it’s due to
      “fentanyls, a family of highly potent synthetic opioids (heroin).” “… the powder, synthesized in clandestine labs across the border in Russia, arrived in Estonia 2002 during a heroin drought and is anywhere between 100 and a thousand times stronger than the heroin it replaced.”

      Estonia’s drug warriors should take a lesson from Portugal, it would seem …

      • the one

        Interesting. China white is always a problem for opiate addicts when it hits the street. Many times more potent that what they are used to. Cannabis may be the answer for the Estonian opiate issue, but they will have to reconsider prohibition before this can happen.