'This Is Working': Portugal, 12 Years after Decriminalizing Drugs

By Wiebke Hollersen, first published in Der Spiegel

Twelve years ago, Portugal eliminated criminal penalties for drug users. Since then, those caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin go unindicted and possession is a misdemeanor on par with illegal parking. Experts are pleased with the results. 

Before he got involved in the global war on drugs, João Goulão was a family physician with his own practice in Faro, on Portugal's Algarve coast. Arriving in his small office in Lisbon, the 58-year-old tosses his jacket aside, leaving his shirt collar crooked. He looks a little tired from the many trips he's taken lately -- the world wants to know exactly how the experiment in Portugal is going. Goulão is no longer able to accept all the invitations he receives. He adds his latest piece of mail to the mountain of papers on his desk. 

From this office, where the air conditioning stopped working this morning, Goulão keeps watch over one of the world's largest experiments in drug policy.

One gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, 25 grams of marijuana leaves or five grams of hashish: These are the drug quantities one can legally purchase and possess in Portugal, carrying them through the streets of Lisbon in a pants pocket, say, without fear of repercussion. MDMA -- the active ingredient in ecstasy -- and amphetamines -- including speed and meth -- can also be possessed in amounts up to one gram. That's roughly enough of each of these drugs to last 10 days.

These are the amounts listed in a table appended to Portugal's Law 30/2000. Goulão participated in creating this law, which has put his country at the forefront of experimental approaches to drug control. Portugal paved a new path when it decided to decriminalize drugs of all kinds. 

"We figured perhaps this way we would be better able get things under control," Goulão explains. "Criminalization certainly wasn't working all that well." Please download the full article here

João Augusto Castel-Branco Goulão is credited as being an architect of Portugal's drug policy established in 2000. He is currently chairman of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and has been a delegate at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

João Augusto Castel-Branco Goulão is credited as being an architect of Portugal's drug policy established in 2000. He is currently chairman of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and has been a delegate at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs.