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Let’s learn from Portugal

When Portugal decriminalized drug use, overdoses decreased and more people sought treatment

Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs for personal use in 2001 when 1% of its population was addicted to heroin. Decriminalization means possession of a drug for personal use is not subject to criminal sanctions, but it is still illegal to sell the drug. Drug distribution is still controlled by the black market, not the government.

At the same time Portugal ramped up housing, treatment and social services for problematic drug users. The results have been impressive and many countries are now studying the Portuguese model. Here are some of the positive outcomes from Portugal as summarized by Transform: Getting Drugs Under Control:

  • Levels of drug use are below the European average.
  • Drug use has declined among those aged 15-24, the population most at risk of initiating drug use.
  • Between 2000 and 2005 (the most recent years for which data are available) rates of problematic drug use and injecting drug use decreased.
  • Rates of continuation of drug use (i.e. the proportion of the population that have ever used an illicit drug and continue to do so) have decreased.
  • Newly diagnosed HIV cases for people who inject drugs fell from 1,016 to 56 between 2001 and 2012.
  • New cases of AIDS for people who inject drugs decreased from 568 to 38 (from 2001 to 2012).
  • Deaths due to drug use have decreased significantly — from approximately 80 in 2001, to 16 in 2012.


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