Drug Decriminalization or Not? Canada Should Learn from Portugal’s Twenty-Year Lessons

Author: Wang Li
Translator: Revin Chen
Editor: Kenny Zhang

There has been an ongoing public debate on drug policy in Canada for decades. Recent public outcry over Richmond City Council’s 7–2 vote to approve a motion sheds new light on this highly controversial issue. The motion asks health authorities to explore the possibility of a supervised drug consumption site at the city’s hospital.

The core of such a heated public debate is arguably the notion of so-called drug decriminalization, which originated from Portugal in 2001. The over twenty-year implementation of the drug decriminalization policy in that country has shown mixed results, sounding an alarm for Canada.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the personal possession of all drugs as part of a wider re-orientation of policy towards a health-led approach. Possessing drugs for personal use is treated as an administrative offense, no longer punishable by imprisonment and does not result in a criminal record or associated stigma. Legal consequences still apply to minors and those involved in drug trafficking.

There were many reasons for Portugal to consider and adopt this drug decriminalization policy. The country signed the United Nations “Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances” in 1988 and was expected to strictly adhere to it. However, by the end of the last century, various historical factors led to an unintended drug epidemic in Portugal.

With a population of ten million, over one million of its residents were using drugs, some starting from early childhood. The country’s geographical location made it a transit hub for various drugs, including cannabis. Prisons were overcrowded, and the government, facing substantial financial burdens associated with drug prohibition, found it economically unsustainable. In essence, Portugal adopted drug decriminalization out of necessity—there were too many illicit drug users, and the country could no longer afford the cost of drug prohibition.

Despite being compelled to implement “drug decriminalization,” the Portuguese government has not completely relinquished control over drug consumption. Their approach is more stringent than the current decriminalization measures in Canada and involves various stages.

Under Portugal’s drug decriminalization framework, drug use remains illegal but not a criminal offense. When adults are found with quantities below the specified limit, the police still intervene. However, instead of incarceration, individuals are sent to the Dissuasion Commission for Treatment (CDT). The CDT, composed of professionals in law, psychology, and medicine, engages with drug users through conversations, education, and rehabilitation.

The CDT has the authority to impose administrative penalties, such as fines, on those involved in severe situations or who have been sent to the commission twice within three months. The maximum fine is equivalent to the average monthly wage in Portugal. Other penalties include revoking licenses for drug users in certain professions, such as doctors and taxi drivers; restrictions on entering entertainment venues at night; travel bans; discontinuation of receiving national welfare; revocation of firearm licenses; mandatory reporting to the CDT on their current life situation; and prohibition from engaging in volunteer work, among other consequences.

In addition, Portugal has enhanced public education, including families, schools, civilian organizations, government agencies, and the military. Public awareness campaigns penetrate every corner, highlighting the dangers of drug use and promoting rehabilitation.

Simultaneously, various rehabilitation centers are provided, with government reimbursement for associated costs. The primary focus of addiction treatment involves a multidisciplinary team of professionals in medicine, psychology, among others, tailoring treatment methods based on the nature of each individual.

The government provides various economic incentives to enterprises, increasing their motivation to employ recovering drug users, assisting them in reintegrating into society. Additionally, low-interest loans are offered to those recovering from addiction to support their entrepreneurial endeavors.

Overall, Portugal’s approach to “decriminalization” is a comprehensive service—from preventive education to maintaining the dignity of drug users, encouraging rehabilitation, and reintegration into society. Drug users no longer face societal exclusion, and concerns about the cost of rehabilitation are alleviated, with government support for entrepreneurship or returning to work.

This approach seems ideal in achieving some of its objectives. According to a 2020 report, the proportion of the prison population sentenced for drug offenses has fallen from over 40% to 15%. Portugal has gone from accounting for over 50% of yearly HIV diagnoses linked to injecting drug use in the EU to 1.7%.

Despite positive signs, however, there are unintended consequences. While initial results were promising in 2001, with drug users willingly seeking treatment and prison overcrowding being alleviated, a significant reversal occurred over a decade later.

In contrast to the data from the initial decriminalization in 2001, a national survey in 2016/17 showed a 49% increase in drug users and a 71% increase in moderately to severely addicted individuals. In essence, drug decriminalization led to more people becoming dependent on drugs. Portugal transformed into a drug tourism destination in Europe, with many foreigners coming to Portugal specifically for legal drug use.

Even more concerning is the 30% surge in drug addiction among the youth. Various administrative penalties for drug users are still insufficient to deter curious individuals, especially teenagers, making them feel that drug use is not a serious matter.

For Generation Z or younger, unaware of the illegal drug use history, the loose drug control since their early memories has resulted in a distorted perception of drug use. The previously established defenses against drugs in Portugal do not exist in their young minds. Adults who experienced strict drug control, encouraged by decriminalization, have gained courage to use drugs. Therefore, Portugal has witnessed a significant increase in drug users, especially among minors.

Moreover, according to a European statistics report from 2011, drug-related deaths in Portugal increased by 150% after decriminalization. The increase in drug users, addicted populations, and frequency of drug use all contributed to death by drug overdose. In terms of drug-related deaths, the purity of the drug is just one factor; using too much at once or accumulating excessive usage can also lead to death. Similar to tobacco and alcohol addiction, the amount and frequency of doses rise as addiction level increases, and sometimes addicts mix substances to enhance their effects, accelerating the pace of death.

The same statistical report also indicates that after drug decriminalization, Portugal experienced a 25% increase in homicides compared to other European Union countries. This increase is linked to the growing illegal drug trade following decriminalization, leading to a rise in violent crime events. On one hand, there is market competition among drug traffickers, and on the other, users take risks to purchase drugs. This is why most people associate drugs with crime. The connection between drugs and crime is inherent, rather than a stereotype.

The only entity capable of bargaining with drug suppliers is the government. When the government provides “reasonably priced” or free drugs through “legal” channels, it benefits users by preventing them from being exploited by suppliers. However, it also encourages more people to try drugs, leading to a vicious cycle. For example, in Uruguay, the first country to legalize cannabis, 59% of homicides in the first quarter of 2018 were due to drug traffickers vying for market dominance, doubling from the same period in 2012.

The recent motion of Richmond City Council regarding Safe Consumption Sites (SCS), commonly known as “safe injection sites,” has ignited a nationwide debate in Canada. It must be emphasized that the establishment of safe injection sites and the support for drug decriminalization are not cultural conflicts or moral orientations on how to treat vulnerable groups but policy options based on scientific judgment.

The unique time to make such a right policy choice is coming. Starting this year, there will be consecutive three years of provincial, federal, and municipal elections in British Columbia. It is time for all political parties, party leaders, and candidates to earnestly study and research the issue of drugs, examine relevant evidence, and formulate policy platforms that truly benefit the rehabilitation of drug users and reflect public opinions.

Canadians deserve such a better choice, even if there were mistakes in the past. Admitting mistakes and making corrections are essential. If one persists on the wrong path, it may cause irreparable damage to society. 

  • Dr. Ally Wang has settled in Greater Vancouver since January 2012. After immigration, Wang becomes a freelance writer and has published 7 books and hundreds of articles. Meanwhile, Wang has become a community influencer. Wang has been the leading voice for many social events and movements. Her audio program has garnered over 1.5 million plays, and she has established channels on platforms such as Himalaya, Podcast, and YouTube. 

Voices & Bridges publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive discussion and debate on important issues. Views represented in the articles are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the V&B.