In 2018, at a time of much debate about drug law reform and growing global interest in decriminalisation, INPUD published a ground-breaking analysis of the Portuguese decriminalisation model – Is Decriminalisation Enough? Drug User Community Voices from Portugal. For the first time, this landmark report sought to assess the impact of decriminalisation in Portugal from the perspectives of those most affected by the reforms – people who use drugs. The report noted that:
The lived experiences, perspectives, and rights of the drug-using community are equally important, and these considerations are rarely taken into account in assessing the outcomes of decriminalisation […]. Interactions with the state and the police, and issues of violence, social exclusion, stigmatisation, and discrimination, are often entirely omitted from discussion and analysis of decriminalisation.
Over the past decade there have been increasing claims that we are moving towards a critical turning point in international drug policy. This is based on a growing recognition that the so-called war on drugs is futile and that it is time for governments to consider alternative approaches including decriminalisation. More recently, this shift has come to be celebrated as a virtual ‘new dawn’ of drug policy reform liberalisation, especially in the face of mounting evidence of the failures of repressive drug policies where countries are finally said to be rethinking their approaches to addressing drug use in society. In the case of Portugal this has involved a shift from viewing people who use drugs as criminals to treating them as patients.
This shift away from criminalising responses and towards more public health-oriented approaches is said to be a sign of progress. But one might rightly question the extent to which a shift from criminalising people to pathologising them as patients can really be classified as progress. In this context, INPUD believes there are some important and much overlooked questions that need to be asked about this socalled progress in relation to decriminalisation. For example, how is progress being defined and measured? Whose interests are being served by current definitions of progress associated with decriminalisation? Has there really been progress and has it gone far enough? These questions also raise issues about how these said changes have been experienced by people who use drugs, and the extent to which the needs and rights of people who use drugs are being foregrounded in countries that are said to have decriminalised drug use.