A new study (http://bjc.oxfordjournals.org/content/50/6/999.full.pdf+html
), published this month in the British Journal of Criminology
shows that decriminalisation of all drugs in Portugal did not lead to increases in drug-related harms. The article, written by Dr Caitlin Hughes of the University of New South Wales and Professor Alex Stevens of the University of Kent, reports on the first independent, academic study to assess the effects of the Portuguese policy.
In July 2001, Portugal decriminalised the possession of up to ten days' supply of all types of illicit drugs. Instead of being arrested, people found in possession of these substances are referred to regional 'committees for the dissuasion of addiction'. These committees have the power to impose warnings or administrative sanctions, including fines, restrictions on driving permits and referral to treatment. However, in the majority of cases, they give a provisional suspension of proceedings – in effect, no punishment. Simultaneously, Portugal increased its investment in treatment and harm reduction services, for example methadone substitution treatment for people who are dependent on heroin.
Since 2001, the following trends have been observed:
- A modest increase in drug use reported by adults. This rise was no bigger than that reported in other southern European countries.
- A reduction in drug use reported by school pupils.
- A reduction in drug related deaths.
- A reduction in HIV and AIDS.
- An increase in the amount of drugs seized by the authorities.
Dr Hughes and Professor Stevens conclude, "contrary to predictions, the Portuguese decriminalization did not lead to major increases in drug use. Indeed, evidence indicates reductions in problematic use, drug-related harms and criminal justice overcrowding." They also write, "such effects can be observed when decriminalising all illicit drugs. This is important, as decriminalisation is commonly restricted to cannabis alone."
Speaking today, Professor Stevens said "the evidence from Portugal suggests that we could end the criminalisation of users of all types of drugs – and not just marijuana – without increasing drug use and harms." He added, "it also shows the importance of continued investment in treatment services and harm reduction to reduce drug-related deaths and HIV."
Notes to editors:
1. Alex Stevens is Professor in Criminal Justice at the University of Kent's School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research.
2. The full article, 'What can we learn from the Portuguese decriminalisation of drugs', is published in the November 2010 issue of the British Journal of Criminology.
3. Professor Stevens will be visiting the USA to discuss this study and his recently published book on Drugs, Crime and Public Health (Routledge). He will be in Boston MA on 19th November and in New York City from 20th to 23rd November, where he will be presenting his work at the Vera Institute of Justice.
4. Dr Caitlin Hughes is a research fellow at the Drug Policy Modelling Program at The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.