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What We Can Learn from Portugal’s War on Drugs

About a decade and a half ago, Portugal was having problems with hard drug abuse. Rather than increasing police forces and arresting all the users, they chose to decriminalize drugs including marijuana, cocaine, heroine and methamphetamine. Portugal invested in education and helping drug users get past their addiction. This change in policy treated drug abusers as patients who need help, rather than criminals and allowed the government to put more resources towards therapy, in place of incarcerating patients.

When drug users are seen as criminals, they are shunned from society and turn to more drugs to deal with their despair. It’s harder for them to get help because they feel alone. But if drug users are seen as patients, society views them as fellow people who need help getting their life back on track. It’s much easier to get help when you have people supporting you.

If someone is caught in possession of drugs in Portugal, they are sent to a panel composing of a social worker, psychologist and legal adviser for guidance. These professionals help patients understand the root of their addiction and why it’s in their best interest to stop taking drugs. The user can choose to refuse help without any legal consequences.

Imaginably, there were many critics who felt this would make the drug epidemic much worse. People thought tourists would flood the country to consume drugs without consequence. These people were very much wrong. Here are some of the facts:


  • Heroine and similar hard drugs related deaths decreased by over 50%
  • The chances of a 16-18 year old trying heroine in their life time decreased from 2.5% to 1.8%. (Report from 2001-2006)
  • The chances of a 7-9th grader trying any illegal drug in their lifetime decreased from 14.1% to 10.6% (Report from 2001-2006)
  • The amount of people stealing property greatly decreased.
  • Between 1999 and 2003, HIV infections among drug users decreased by 17%.
via ThePlaidZebra

This is more than enough evidence to prove that criminalizing drug users only makes things worse. It wrongly labels people and tarnishes their reputation. It punishes the people who actually need help.

With all psychological knowledge we’ve gained from studies over the past several decades, and the failure of the ‘War on Drugs’, one has to ask, why do we keep doing the same thing over again and expect different results? Anyone with a basic understanding of human psychology knows fear and punishment is not the way to help people.

Sources: Time to End the War on Drugs – Richard Branson



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