Why haven’t Portugal’s successful drug law reforms been copied by other countries?


Australia21: syringe graphic from theguardian.comThere is no doubt now that Portugal’s 2001 drug law reforms have worked and in many ways. So asking why they haven’t been copied throughout the world is a very good question.

After careful study by visitors to Portugal from abroad, there is little debate about the decline in Portugal after 2001 in HIV infections among and from people who inject drugs, or the drop in drug overdose deaths and crime and the decrease in ‘problematic drug use’. There is some debate about the what happened to rates of drug use. Some figures went up while others went down after 2001. Some researchers have argued that the favourable trends in outcomes like HIV, deaths and crime are more important than measures of consumption. Another argument is that drug consumption in neighbouring countries increased more than it did in Portugal, so a low rise is a better outcome than it may first appear.

Portugal’s drug law reforms of 2001 have survived intact despite a few changes in government at elections. Also, these drug law reforms are popular in opinion polls. Portugal is a poor country and was very badly hit by the Global Financial Crisis of 2007/08. Nevertheless, government drug policy expenditure survived the GFC almost untouched even though the government of the day cut a lot of other spending.

All this indicates that the public and the political elite in Portugal support the 2001 reforms and regard them as successful.

Susan Ferreira makes a powerful point in her Long Read in The Guardian, Portugal’s radical drugs policy is working. Why hasn’t the world copied it? 

Australia21: handing out methadone in Portugal‘Massive international cultural shifts in thinking about drugs and addiction are needed to make way for decriminalisation and legalisation globally. In the US, the White House has remained reluctant to address what drug policy reform advocates have termed an “addiction to punishment”. But if conservative, isolationist, Catholic Portugal could transform into a country where same-sex marriage and abortion are legal, and where drug use is decriminalised, a broader shift in attitudes seems possible elsewhere. But, as the harm-reduction adage goes: one has to want the change in order to make it.’

Ineffective, expensive punitive approaches are adopted all too quickly

We have to remind ourselves that the failure of the Portuguese 2001 reforms to be emulated by other countries has been the international pattern for decades. New punitive approaches which are ineffective, expensive and accompanied by serious collateral damage are often copied quickly by many countries; meanwhile new interventions which are based on strong empirical evidence and are effective, inexpensive and unaccompanied by serious unintended negative consequences are ignored. Think of drug courts, which were implemented rapidly in many countries even before any evaluation data were available and are now generally considered pretty ineffective and quite expensive. On the other hand, think of how Australia had a very positive experience with Sydney’s Medically Supervised Injecting Centre after it opened in 2001, but it took another 16 years and Herculean advocacy efforts for Australia’s second MSIC to be approved.

For many years around the world, drug policy was only ever tightened even though outcomes kept on getting worse. Now drug policy is starting to be relaxed as policy makers grapple with the overwhelming evidence of abject failure and futility from trying to arrest and imprison our way out of our drug policy mess.

As Australia21’s own research has shown, the opinion of many senior law enforcers is now that our focus should be on harm minimisation and helping people overcome problematic personal drug habits, not ineffective punishment.

Australia21: Smarter About Drugs youth forum 2014
Dr. Alex Wodak AM

Emeritus Consultant, Alcohol and Drug Service, St Vincent’s Hospital
Visiting Fellow, Kirby Institute, UNSW
President, Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation
Director, Australia21

Further reading: In 2009 Glenn Greenwald wrote a very positive and widely read assessment for a US free market organisation. This was followed by a series of careful academic publications by Professor Alex Stevens from the UK and Australian Dr Caitlin Hughes (based on her PhD).


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