On 1st July 2001, Portugal began a remarkable experiment, decriminalising all drugs, including marijuana but also heroin and cocaine. Decriminalization means that use and possession for use are subject to administrative sanctions instead of criminal proceedings; in keeping with international treaties and the practice in other countries, Portugal is not prepared to legalize drugs. The decriminalisation policy is the flagship of a revolutionary change in Portuguese drug policy, in which it is one of a number of harm reduction measures.

This revolutionary step began with the formation of an elite expert commission to consider what was widely regarded as an increasing drug use problem.  This Commission for a National Drug Strategy (CNDS) produced a report (Comissão para a Estratégia Nacional de Combate à Droga, 1998) recommending a major shift in Portuguese drug policy in the direction of harm reduction, including decriminalization.  This shift was the logical development of an explicit set of basic principles for policy developed by the Commission, and did not consider the experiences of Spain or other countries (members of the CNDS, personal communications).

To the surprise of some of the members of the CNDS, the Council of Ministers approved the report almost in its entirety (Government of Portugal, 1999) and produced a national drug strategy consistent with that report (Government of Portugal, 2000).  The Assembleia da República (parliament) and Council of Ministers, with the approval of the President of the Republic, passed specific implementation legislation, of which the most significant is the decriminalization law that has taken effect July 2001.

In this article we shall provide some background information on drugs and drug usage in Portugal and trace the development of the changes in Portuguese drug policy and what the anticipated results of the changes will be.  Because this is policy-in-the-making, with changes sometimes occurring on a daily basis, our description is largely based upon a series of interviews and discussions dating from March 1998 through July 2001, conducted in Portugal, with over 35 people involved in this process. The interviewees were, among others, most of the members of the CNDS, members of parliament, a Supreme Court justice, the mayor of Lisboa, members of treatment delivery organizations from different parts of the country, the leadership of the Institute for Drugs and Drug Addiction (Instituto Português da Droga e da Toxicodependência = IPDT) and the Drug Prevention and Treatment Service (Serviço de Prevenção e Tratamento da Toxicodependência = SPTT).  These interviews have been reinforced by examining what data exist on the drug problem in Portugal and official governmental documents.

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