• Stefanie and Mallory

How to win a war on drugs: the Portuguese case

By Alisa Ovchinnikova and Carolina Cornemillot

Eighteen years ago, Portugal took a turn in its policies and became a world reference, passing a law that decriminalized all drugs. Since that, Portugal has seen drops in overdoses, HIV infections and drug-related crime. We can consider this policy as a successful one in terms that, according to the Compton and ‘t Hart (2019) definition, “it demonstrably creates widely valued social outcomes; through design, decision-making, and delivery processes that enhance both its problem-solving capacity and its political

legitimacy; and sustains this performance for a considerable period of time, even in the face of changing circumstances”.

The political and social conjuncture from the time this law began to be debated is remarkable. The country had an authoritarian regime, and during that period lost all of the big developments from the 1960’s, making it an era of total ignorance. So when drugs began flooding in, the country was utterly unprepared. When dictatorship ended, democratic governments have tried hard to solve the problem but the situation was only getting worse, consumption was growing at the same rate as infectious diseases and overcrowding in prisons.

Among the methodological considerations, this case was driven by the desire to move away from existing problems, i.e., was stimulated by opportunity and necessity, that motivated the government to approve such a strategy. At first glance, the legislation wasn’t revolutionary: to decriminalize the consumption of those with a maximum of 10 doses of an illicit substance. Instead, what made the difference was a change in sensitivity to addicts: they were no longer treated as criminals, they were given methadone heroin-replacement care programs and were included in the health care system to treat their illnesses.

In order to achieve programmatic success, the focus was to mitigate as far as possible the negative consequences of drugs from a perspective that isn’t based on persecution but on information, medical care and services to addicts, like offering sterile supplies to those who inject, methadone for those seeking to quit heroin addiction and supervised narco-rooms. This way, the government designed smart programmes in a manner to produce social outcomes that are valuable.

Between the social outcomes, it is remarkable that the number of people dying over overdose has fallen since the implementation of this policy. Currently, the rate of drug related deaths due to overdose it’s 5 times lower than the average in Europe. Also, the rate of HIV infections fell dramatically. Portugal can be proud of its campaigns against drug addiction, such as “Carrinha de Metadona”, a van that goes all around the country giving free methadone to addicts.

Analyzing from a perspective of temporal assessment, since Portugal changed its policies, the consensus has been to keep the law and no government, either right or left, has been tempted to reverse it.

It’s important to mention that the situation wasn’t perfect. At home, it wasn’t seen as something that could work to reduce the consumption of drugs, instead, it was estimated that it will increase it. Another argument frequently used by critics is that even if the drugs are tolerated, selling is forbidden, and to find drugs, the citizens have to illegally contact drug dealers. NGOs complain that resources are scarce and consumer associations complain that laws are still not progressive enough. In addition, the first single supervised use room across the country have been created only 17 years after the law that allows the licensing and regulation of these infrastructures was approved, proving that the time frame used for the assessment of some policy outcomes created a bigger scope for controversy about the evaluation of this law.


Compton, M. E., & ‘t Hart, P. (2019). How to ‘See’ Great Policy Successes. A Field Guide to Spotting Policy Success in the Wild (1-19).

Diário da República (2000). Retrieved from:


The Washington Post (2015). Why hardly anyone dies from a drug overdose in Portugal. Retrieved from:

The Guardian (2010) What Britain could learn from Portugal’s drugs policy. Retrieved


Vice (2016). Descriminalização do consumo de drogas em Portugal é exemplo para o

Mundo. Retrieved from:

Recent Posts

See All

Contact Us:

Bijlhouwerstraat 6, 3511 ZC Utrecht, The Netherlands

TEL: +31 30 253 81 01  |  EMAIL:

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No694266)