Which European country has the most liberal drug laws?

(Hint: It’s not The Netherlands)

Although its capital is notorious among stoners and college kids for marijuana haze–filled “coffee shops,” Holland has never actually legalized cannabis — the Dutch simply don’t enforce their laws against the shops. The correct answer is Portugal, which in 2001 became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

At the recommendation of a national commission charged with addressing Portugal’s drug problem, jail time was replaced with the offer of therapy. The argument was that the fear of prison drives addicts underground and that incarceration is more expensive than treatment — so why not give drug addicts health services instead? Under Portugal’s new regime, people found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser for appropriate treatment (which may be refused without criminal punishment), instead of jail.

The question is, does the new policy work? At the time, critics in the poor, socially conservative and largely Catholic nation said decriminalizing drug possession would open the country to “drug tourists” and exacerbate Portugal’s drug problem; the country had some of the highest levels of hard-drug use in Europe. But the recently released results of a report commissioned by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, suggest otherwise.

The paper, published by Cato in April, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.

Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

Read the rest of the article at Time, or the initial article on Salon.

the audacity of sneakily pushing this law in 2001 without making a fuss about it was genius. if this law had been put on a referendum 8 years ago for the people to decide, it would have never gone through… which is not to say that some things shouldn’t be put on referendums, it’s just that portugal is mainly a conservative/catholic country, with a lot of resistance to change. this was a bold step, but one in the right direction, as the studies have shown. well done!

7 comments to “Which European country has the most liberal drug laws?”

  • Nuno Lebreiro says:

    I completely agree, if it the law had been put in referendum people would reject it!
    I live in Portugal and I didn’t knew about this law and for the first time in many years Portugal got to be proud of its politicians.

  • Pedro Leite says:

    I live in Portugal too. Bulls*its. The problem is even worst.

  • ana says:

    How come?

  • Lua says:

    I didn’t know about this law either!

    I’m going to try to read a bit more about it though. I’m really curious to see if there are more reports that also agree it has been a success! However, i do think it can be a success but it doesn’t really depend only on the services provided. Prevention has to play an enormous role. The two combined? yes… but to attribute it solely to treatment … nah. I think the variables might be forgotten here.

  • Bob says:

    “The poor socially conservative catholic nation”

    You really haven’t done your research there. Yes it is majority Catholic but it is a politically and socially progressive state. Since the end of the dictatorship, under the period of the new constitution from the mid 70s onwards there has only been Socialist or Social Democratic governments.

  • ana says:

    It’s not my research. Portugal might be politically progressive in some aspects, but socially progressive? Abortion was illegal until very recently, homosexual weddings are not likely to be legal any time soon, etc. I’m not a political expert, but I think that was what the authors meant.

  • Bob says:

    I understand that Ana but…abortion is now totally legal, unlike in the UK where there are still technicalities. And civil unions are available in Portugal, with a bill set to appear before the Portugese Assembleia in September/November time to make marriage legal.

    The remnants of the dictatorship era prevailed within certain areas of statutory law within Portugal. But this should not be misinterpreted as brandishing the whole nation “poor socially conservative catholic nation”. That’s just counterfactual.

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