Militarization vs. Decriminalization: Portugal and the United States’ Drug Policy

Allie Carter (CMC ’19)

The 1990’s in Portugal and the United States were similarly characterized by rapid rates of illicit drug use.  Both countries took major action, but in starkly opposing directions. While the United States launched a second wave of the War on Drugs and devoted billions of dollars to the effort, Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs. Further, Portugal simultaneously introduced a public health campaign that helped drug users combat addiction. The implications of Portugal’s decriminalization are astounding, as drug-related deaths in Portugal are now the second-lowest in the European Union; the percentage of drug-related offenders in Portuguese prisons dropped 20%; the number of people in drug treatment programs increased 60%; the rates of heroin users in Portugal dropped from 100,000 to 25,000; and the number of Portuguese deaths from overdoses dropped over 85%. Contrarily, the United States’ drug policy was not as successful, as last year over 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses the same amount that died in the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq Wars. The starkly opposing policy approaches to illicit drug use produced highly contrasting results, indicative of the potential drug decriminalization policy has for other countries.

To understand the decision to decriminalize drugs, one must understand Portugal’s political context. Portugal’s 20th century was highly volatile as it experienced over 55 years of dictatorship resulting in extreme poverty and ending in a revolution. In response to the years of dictatorship, Portugal’s political philosophy champions both individual freedom and autonomy. Social services in Portugal are particularly autonomous, especially the nation’s health services and drug treatments, though they do have a centralized healthcare system.

As Portugal developed as a country, moving from a rural to urban society, drug use increasingly became a more prominent issue. Given the country’s location on the westernmost point on the continent, Portugal became a hotspot for drug trafficking across Europe. Drug use in Portugal reached new heights, as 1% of the population was dependent on heroin and the country had the highest rate of drug-related AIDS deaths in Europe. Portugal’s initial reaction was to implement severe sets of policies headed by the criminal justice system, similar to policies in the United States at that time. When these policies continued to fail the country, Portugal took a major leap in the opposite direction by beginning their experiment of drug decriminalization with hopes that it could have better results.  

Decriminalization does not mean legalization. While drug possession and use is still illegal in Portugal, when found in possession, one pays a fine and is typically referred to a treatment program rather than being arrested and having a criminal record. (Drug trafficking remains a criminal offense). To enact the new drug policy, the Portuguese government created Dissuasion Commissions in each of Portugal’s 18 administrative districts. The role of the Dissuasion Commission is to determine the plan of action when someone is cited using drugs. A Dissuasion Commission is comprised of one member nominated by the Ministry of Justice and two members nominated by the Ministry of Health, so on every Dissuasion Commission, there are members with legal, medical, or social services backgrounds. This is indicative of Portugal’s holistic approach to minimizing illicit drug use.

Drug policy in Portugal has a strong public health focus. The European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction refers to this trend as “healthification.” In treating drug abuse as an addiction and medical issue rather than a criminal issue, Portugal is creating a healthier and safer environment for its citizens. Drug-related HIV infections have dropped more than 90% and treatment is more readily available. Further, the Portuguese Health Ministry spends under $10 per citizen per year on its drug policy, while the U.S. spends $10,000 per household per decade on a drug policy that has nowhere near the same success.

On the other hand, the United State’s approach is exemplary of its tendency to allocate large sums of money towards an issue, in this case, drug law enforcement, with hopes it will solve an issue. George W. Bush’s presidency was especially indicative of this phenomenon as he initiated costly campaigns to apprehend drug users in response to an increased illegal drug use rate. During George W. Bush’s presidency, drug enforcement was militarized, as there were roughly 40,000 drug-related military-style SWAT searches on Americans annually. Despite these measures, the rates of fatal overdoses quickly increased and rates of drug use stagnated during his time in office.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, public opinion of drug use in the United States has moved towards a slightly more liberal ideology, as marijuana has become legalized in a number of states. Further, a number of U.S. states implemented laws extending access to Naloxone, a medication used to treat overdoses. Additionally, the “911 Good Samaritan” law, introduced in a number of states is another implementation to help prevent overdoses. The “911 Good Samaritan” law serves to incentivize people to obtain medical aid if experiencing an overdose. Despite these measures and additional policy changes, such as terminating the prohibition on federal funding for syringe access programs and lessening the crack sentencing discrepancy, the United State’s drug policy did not shift to a health-based policy.

It may be unrealistic to assume that the United States would ever completely decriminalize drugs in the same manner Portugal did, as the county’s’ ideologies are acutely different and the United States’ population is considerably larger than Portugal’s. There are major cultural and systematic differences between the two countries, but ultimately the United States may be less inclined to take a major risk in the fashion Portugal did. Drug policy in the United States is gradually changing, as opioid addiction is now being regarded as a health issue and medical marijuana has become a routine means of treating illnesses in a large sum of states. While other drugs like cocaine will most likely never be decriminalized given the violence of drug trade across U.S. borders, decriminalization of individual and arguably less illicit drugs remains a possibility in the years to come.  

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