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What is the secret to Portugal’s drug policy success?

Portugal is a hot topic in drug reform debates. Yet, the experiment being carried out in that European country is often mischaracterized by both supporters and critics. The secret of Portugal’s drug policy success is not decriminalization, but its capacity to tailor responses to the needs of specific users.

The current debate surrounding failures in drug policy, particularly in the United States, has largely centered on over-incarceration, strong-armed law enforcement, and harmful drug use.

Many have argued that these failings are due in part to a one-size-fits-all response to deter drug use — either criminalizing it or treating it as a disease.  Some are aware of the much-hailed change in drug policy that took place in Portugal in 2001 that decriminalized drug use and personal possession, and substituted criminal sanctions for administrative penalties. Fourteen years on, what can we learn?

Before detailing the innovative approach taken by the Portuguese, we must first note that it would be a mistake to think...

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