Dispatches from the Creation Wars

It’s been ten years since Portugal decriminalized drugs and began to treat addiction as a health problem rather than a criminal one. The results so far have been great.

“There is no doubt that the phenomenon of addiction is in decline in Portugal,” said Joao Goulao, President of the Institute of Drugs and Drugs Addiction, a press conference to mark the 10th anniversary of the law.

The number of addicts considered “problematic” — those who repeatedly use “hard” drugs and intravenous users — had fallen by half since the early 1990s, when the figure was estimated at around 100,000 people, Goulao said.


Here’s how their system works:

A law that became active on July 1, 2001 did not legalise drug use, but forced users caught with banned substances to appear in front of special addiction panels rather than in a criminal court.

The panels composed of psychologists, judges and social workers recommended action based on the specifics of each case.

Since then, government panels have recommended a response based largely on whether the individual is an occasional drug user or an addict.

This is probably a difficult system to replicate in a country this large, but at least it doesn’t treat every single person who takes drugs as being exactly the same. The vast majority of people who use illicit drugs do so in a moderate, not terribly unhealthy way. This is true even of cocaine. Most people who use cocaine do so only occasionally, not habitually. And it’s certainly true of marijuana, which millions of people use without any ill effects that should possibly matter to anyone else.

Those who can use certain kinds of drugs casually and without serious ill effects should be allowed to do so. Those who have serious addictions to drugs like heroin will almost always want to quit but lack the ability, the resources and the support to do so. Offering them the opportunity for rehab is the best thing we could do for them. But let’s not pretend that every person caught with a joint in their car is an “addict” who needs to go to rehab.