PORTO, Portugal—This country’s move to decriminalize illicit substances—Europe’s most liberal drug legislation—turns 10 years old this month amid new scrutiny and plaudits.

Portugal’s decriminalization regime has caught the eye of regulators in Europe and beyond since it was implemented in 2001. Proponents credit the program for stanching one of Europe’s worst drug epidemics. Critics associate it with higher crime and murder rates. Approaching a decade in force, it is providing a real-world model of one way to address an issue that is a social and economic drag on countries world-wide.

Norway’s government formed a committee to look at better strategies for dealing with drug abuse and sent two delegates to Portugal in early May. Danish politicians have also talked of moving toward full decriminalization. In March, Danish parliamentarian Mette Frederiksen of the opposition Social Democrats praised the Portuguese model.

„For us, this is about the addicts leading a more dignified life,“ she told Danish daily Berlingske. „We want to lower the death rates, the secondary symptoms and the criminality, so we look keenly to Portugal.“

Markel Redondo for The Wall Street JournalA patient takes her methadone dose at a Porto rebab center that is part of Portugal’s decadelong experiment with drug decriminalization.



Decriminalization has been criticized by United Nations bodies. In its 2009 annual report, the International Narcotics Control Board expressed „concern“ over approaches that decriminalize drugs or introduce alternative treatments. „The movement poses a threat to the coherence and effectiveness of the international drug-control system and sends the wrong message to the general public,“ the board wrote.

In July 2000, Portugal moved beyond previous liberalization regimes in places like the Netherlands by passing a law that transformed drug possession from a matter for the courts to one of public and community health. Trafficking remained a criminal offense but the government did away with arrests, courts and jail time for people carrying a personal supply of anything from marijuana to cocaine to heroin. It established a commission to encourage casual users to quit and backed 78 treatment centers where addicts could seek help.

Portugal’s Fight Against Drugs

About 500 patients from Porto’s Cedofeita rehab center take methodone daily.

In 2008, the last year for which figures are available, more than 40,000 people used the rehab centers and other treatment programs, according to the Institute for Drugs and Drug Addiction, a branch of Portugal’s Ministry of Health. The ministry says it spends about €50 million ($64.5 million) a year on the treatment programs, with €20 million more provided through a charity funded by Portugal’s national lotteries.

Before decriminalization, Portugal was home to an estimated 100,000 problem heroin users, or 1% of the country’s population, says João Goulão, director of the Institute for Drugs and Drug Addiction. By 2008, chronic users for all substances had dropped to about 55,000, he says. The rate of HIV and hepatitis infection among drug users—common health issues associated with needle-sharing—has also fallen since the law’s 2001 rollout.

Portuguese and European Union officials are loath to give publicly funded treatment centers sole credit. They say the drop in problematic drug users could also be attributed to heroin’s declining popularity in Portugal and the rising popularity of cocaine and synthetic drugs among young people.

At the same time, Portugal’s drug-mortality rate, among Europe’s lowest, has risen. Mr. Goulão says this is due in part to improved methods of collecting statistics, but the number of drug-related fatalities can also be traced to mortality among those who became addicted to heroin during the country’s 1980s and 1990s epidemic.

Violent crime, too, has risen since the law’s passage. According to a 2009 report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Portugal’s drug-use and murder rates rose in the years after decriminalization. The general rise in drug use was in keeping with European trends, but the U.N. noted with some alarm that cocaine use doubled and cocaine seizures jumped sevenfold from 2001 to 2006.

Murders rose 40% in the period. The report tentatively links that with drug trafficking, but points out overall murder rates in Portugal remain low.

Pedro do Carmo, deputy national director of Portugal’s judiciary police, says he doesn’t see link the rise in violent crime with decriminalization. Instead, he praises the program for reducing the fear and stigma attached with drug use. „Now, when we pick up an addict, we’re not picking up a criminal,“ he says. „They are more like victims.“

The Portuguese began considering drug decriminalization following a leap in heroin addiction decades ago in the country, a major entry point for drug trafficking from Latin America and North Africa.

The then-ruling Socialist Party government of Prime Minister António Guterres launched a political debate to discuss how to resolve the problem. Members of the right-wing People’s Party decried any tolerance for drug use, saying it would invite drug tourism.

Mr. Guterres’s government pushed through a full decriminalization law. A subsequent center-right coalition led by José Manuel Barroso, now president of the European Commission, didn’t repeal it.

The legislation was the first in a series of liberal policy shifts in this predominantly Roman Catholic country. In May, President Aníbal Cavaco Silva ratified a law allowing same-sex marriage, making it the sixth European country to do so. In 2007, Portugal went from having among the toughest restrictions on abortion to among the most liberal.

Portugal’s focus on close-knit community and protecting the family may be at the heart of many of these reforms, say some observers. In a 1999 report that paved the way for new drug legislation, current Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates implored that „drugs are not a problem for other people, for other families, for other people’s children.“

Portugal’s rehab clinics, called Centros de Atendimento de Toxicodependentes, are central to the strategy. In the lively northern port city of Porto, dozens of patients pop in daily to the Cedofeita rehab center to pick up free doses of methadone. Others have scheduled therapy or family counseling sessions, also free.

„The more they can be integrated in their families and their jobs, the better their chances of success,“ says José González, a psychiatrist at Cedofeita. Mr. González says that about half of his 1,500 patients are in substitution treatment, 500 of which take methadone daily. He says there is no defined model or timeline for treatment.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, a Lisbon-based European Union agency, says methadone or other substance-substitution programs are generally viewed as successful but has observed that some Portuguese are beginning to question long-term methadone therapy.

„Now that the epidemic is under control for the most part, people start asking questions,“ says Dagmar Hedrich, a senior scientific analyst with the EMCDDA. „The question now is what is going to happen next? There is a part of the population who do not have the possibility of leaving the treatment.“