Portugal, a country widely praised by supporters of drug legalization for its move to decriminalize all hard drugs, is facing increased doubts from within its borders whether the approach is actually working.
Over the last 20 years, Portugal has become a model for supporters of legalized drugs, but according to a recent Washington Post report, with the headline “Once hailed for decriminalizing drugs, Portugal is now having doubts”, the number of people using drugs and overdosing has spiked in recent years. Some inside the country believe a spike in crime is connected to the prevalence of drugs.
According to the report, drug problems in urban areas are worse than they have been in decades, and the government entities that run rehabilitation programs and underfunded “dissuasion commissions” are more focused on supporting drug use as a “human right” than treatment.
“These days in Portugal, it is forbidden to smoke tobacco outside a school or a hospital. It is forbidden to advertise ice cream and sugar candies. And yet, it is allowed for [people] to be there, injecting drugs,” Rui Moreira, the mayor of Porto, Portugal, told the Washington Post. “We’ve normalized it.”
Additionally, the percentage of people using drugs in Portugal increased from 7.8% to 12.8% in 2022, and overdoses have hit 12-year highs. In the capital of Lisbon, overdose rates doubled from 2019 to 2023. In Porto, drug-related paraphernalia on the streets rose 24% from 2021 to 2022, and crime spiked 14%, which the police say is related to rampant drug use.
“At the end of the day, the police have their hands tied,” Leitão da Silva, chief of Municipal Police of Porto, said while explaining that the current drug abuse situation is similar to what it was before drugs were decriminalized.
The Washington Post report explained that police are experiencing “fatigue” knowing that arresting drug dealers, who can be arrested in Portugal, is unlikely to result in any serious punishment.
“When you first back off enforcement, there are not many people walking over the line that you’ve removed. And the public think it’s working really well,” Keith Humphreys, former senior drug policy adviser in the Obama administration and a Stanford University professor, told the Washington Post. “Then word gets out that there’s an open market, limits to penalties, and you start drawing in more drug users. Then you’ve got a more stable drug culture, and, frankly, it doesn’t look as good anymore.”
Humphreys told Fox News Digital that Portugal, and other places experiencing issues with drug legalization such as Portland, Oregon, have “gotten to an equilibria” where a lot of police officers and politicians believe “rightly or wrongly” that if they attempt to crack down on drugs “nothing’s going to happen.”
“If I write that ticket, you’ll never get dissuasion commission or if I arrest you for dealing you’ll never go to jail and that makes them less interested in doing it, unsurprisingly, cause they have a lot of other things to do and it’s the same sort of thing that happens when, you know, police don’t take it seriously. When someone breaks into your car over time people will just stop reporting car break-ins because it’s just a hassle, a waste of time and nothing’s going to happen anyway. So I think that has happened, you know, in places like Porto, no one thinks its making a difference so of course they’re going to stop doing it they have plenty of other things to do.”
Drug policy expert Paul Larkin, senior legal research fellow in the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation, told Fox News Digital that it is no surprise that some in Portugal are reconsidering the drug legalization approach.
“Just as it is a mistake automatically to assume that criminalizing an activity is going to bring it to an end, so too it is a mistake to think that decriminalizing an activity will automatically eliminate whatever harms are associated with the activity itself,” Larkin said.
Larkin pointed to other places across the globe, including in Portland, Oregon, where a recent survey found the majority of residents regret decriminalizing drugs, as examples that decriminalizing drugs does not work because ultimately 80-90% of the population do not want to acquiesce to the roughly 10% of the population that regularly uses drugs.
“No,” Larkin told Fox News Digital when asked if he has ever seen a situation where decriminalizing drugs ended up positively affecting society.