In this short film we summarise what the community of people who use drugs in Portugal acknowledges about the famous drug policy model of Portugal, but also what they would like to see improved.
The Portuguese drug policy model is often highlighted as the principal model of progressive drug policy. The country’s decision to decriminalise drug use in 2001 had indeed many positive impacts upon the health and wellbeing of people who use drugs, but the number of people convicted for the crime of drug consumption is raising again. To paint a picture of the portuguese legislation as perfect, or a magic wand that addresses all the issues around drugs, would be a mistake. Drugreporter co-produced this new short film with CASO and INPUD.
In 2001 Portugal shifted focus from drug prohibition to harm reduction and treatment. The new drug law decriminalised the private use, acquisition, and possession of all illegal drugs, as long as they do not exceed the amount required for an average individual’s dose for 10 days. Drug use became an administratively sanctionable misdemeanor. Whether this sanction is applied, namely if you are caught by police in possession of drugs, what happens to you is determined at district level by a team of legal, health, and social workers, known as ‘Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction’. This commission can decide to suspend your case, to impose a fine on you if you were caught multiple times, or to recommend counseling or treatment, depending on how they assess the risk level of your drug use. In the vast majority of cases, so-called problematic drug use is not identified, and the cases are simply ‘suspended’ and you get no criminal record. Around 80% of the people brought in front of the commission are cannabis users, who don’t experience problems with drug use. Dealing or production of illicit drugs still remain crimes.
The shift towards harm reduction resulted in significant successes:
- Drug death rates in Portugal are now among the lowest in the EU.
- Drug use prevalence is now reasonably low when compared to other European countries, including those that criminalise drug use. Portugal now has some of the lowest usage rates in Europe among those aged between 15-34.
- The number of new HIV cases attributed to injecting drug use has dramatically decreased, from 518 in 2000 to just 13 in 2019.
- Around 17 thousand (over half) of people who use opioids in Portugal are in some form of opioid substitution treatment, slightly above the European average.
- More than 1 million syringes are being distributed annually. This is significantly down since 2003, when the figure was at 2.6 million, but is still one of the highest in the EU.
- Between 2000-2009, there was a significant increase in outpatient treatment units. However, the number of individuals in treatment for drugs steadily decreased between 2009-2018, which may be linked to significant reductions in health and welfare budgets following the impact of the global financial crisis.
“Despite all the importance of harm reduction work, it has always been underfunded and ruled by precariousness, not only in Portugal but in the world in general.
Harm reduction has been treated as a low cost intervention, despite all the effectiveness it has shown and this has to be corrected, it has to be treated with the dignity it deserves.” Says Marta Pinto, scientist of the University of Porto.
Joana Francisca Canêdo, from the treatment activist group GAT adds to this that “There comes a time when you want to make the struggle more intersectional, to mix and to shuffle feminist collectives and bring the issue of stigma, discrimination, and violence to the center. And may we, at last, claim it as needed. And there you have it, we need consumption spaces aimed at women and non-binary people, because we don’t want to go to the same places as our customers, our lovers, and our aggressors.”
After decriminalisation, the proportion of prisoners sentenced for drugs has fallen dramatically. In 2001, over 40% of prisoners were held for drug offences, which fell to 15% in 2019, below the European average. Paradoxically, despite having decriminalised the use of all illegal drugs, Portugal has an increasing number of people criminally sanctioned – some with prison terms – for drug use. The reason behind this is the 2008 decision of the Supreme Court of Justice.
In 2008 the Supreme Court of Justice reestablished the crime of consumption for situations in which the quantities identified are higher than the average individual consumption for ten days.
“The sanctions applied by the courts in these cases are not aimed at traffickers or at trafficker-users and are exclusively aimed at people who are demonstrably drug users. The most immediate consequence is the increase in the number of convictions for the crime of consumption, after 2008.” Explains in the film Ximene Rêgo, researcher of the Minho University. She says this interpretation results in a paradox: “Despite having decriminalised the use of all illegal drugs, Portugal has a growing number of people criminally sanctioned for using illegal drugs, even resorting to effective prison sentences. In 2019, 1883 people were convicted for drug related crime, 42% of these people for the crime of consumption. It seems to me necessary to reinforce the spirit of the decriminalisation law by returning drug use exclusively to the sphere of administrative offences.“
Convicted individuals for drug use, by type of penalty. From: 20 years of Portuguese drug policy – developments, challenges and the quest for human rights.
So the possession of larger quantities of drugs remains criminalised, and police still have a mandate to search and detain people who use drugs. Despite the possession of small quantities of drugs being decriminalised, the drugs that people buy and use are still produced in a black-market context. Since drugs themselves are not legalised and regulated, this also means that when people buy drugs, they must get into violent and dangerous environments to do so. Further to this, if people are found in possession of any drugs, the drugs are confiscated and destroyed by police. Though some people who use drugs are not criminalized, the drugs that people use, are.
As it is written in “Is Decriminalisation Enough? Drug User Community Voices from Portugal” published by INPUD in 2018:
The Portuguese model of (partial) decriminalisation is an important first step, but it is not the end point. In conclusion, ‘decriminalisation’ must mean just that: not partial decriminalisation, not compulsory drug dissuasion committees, but full decriminalisation of people who use drugs, a full removal of all criminalising legislation and policy, as well as penalisation and sanctioning, related to people’s personal drug use. Further to decriminalisation, legalisation and regulation are urgently required to decrease harms that can be associated with drug use.
To read the full report, click on the picture below:
Article: István Gábor Takács
Concept and coordination: Lígia Parodi and Rui Miguel Coimbra Morais | CASO
Camera: Luís Vieira Campos | Filmes Liberdade and Sofia Ferreira
Directed and edited by: István Gábor Takács | Rights Reporter Foundation | Drugreporter
Narration: Ana Amorim
Translation: Lígia Parodi
Russian subtitles: Igor Kuzmenko