22 years ago, Portugal adopted a drug policy which has since received widespread acclaim for its innovative approach to drug use and addiction from experts in addiction and recovery. By decriminalising the use and possession of small quantities of drugs, Portugal focused on harm reduction and treatment rather than punishment and criminalization. This approach has been shown to be much more effective in reducing drug-related harm and improving public health outcomes for the most vulnerable in society than the traditional "war on drugs" approach that Ireland has relied on for far too long.

Here in my home country of Ireland, we should learn from Portugal’s success. Like many European countries, Ireland’s restrictive and often harsh laws on drugs neglect harm reduction, choosing instead to prioritise criminalising drug-related activity, even consumption, and viewing drugs primarily as a criminal rather than a healthcare issue. By imitating Portugal’s successes and pursuing an approach to drug policy focused on minimising harm, Ireland and other European countries could improve the situation for drug users and everyone else too.

Perhaps the most notable benefit of Portugal’s policy has been its success in reducing drug-related deaths. Portugal has seen a significant decrease in drug-related deaths since decriminalising drug use and possession in 2001. This is undoubtedly tied to what many would consider an unexpected win of Portugal's drug policy: it has succeeded in reducing drug use among young people in particular. Despite what proponents of drug criminalization often claim, Portugal has proven it is possible to pursue a drug policy based on harm reduction without triggering an exponential increase in drug use and, in fact, even decreasing drug use among key demographics such as young people.

According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Portugal has some of the lowest rates of drug use among young people in the EU, with 8% of 15- to 34-year old’s having used cannabis in the last year and 0.3% having used cocaine, compared to Ireland’s 14% and 5%, respectively. This is particularly stark considering Ireland now has the joint-highest rate of drug-induced deaths among 16- to 64-year-olds in the EU, compared with Portugal, which has the lowest. This should not be dismissed as mere coincidence; an entire generation of young people have been raised in Portugal with decriminalised drugs and a greater emphasis on education and healthcare than moralization.

This has led to Portugal's drug policy’s greatest triumph: its success in reducing the stigma associated with drug use and addiction. By treating drug addiction as a health issue, rather than a criminal issue, Portugal has helped to reduce the shame and stigma that many drug users experience, something that cannot be underestimated as addiction itself is born of a cycle of internalised stigma and self-hatred. This has made it easier and safer for drug users to seek help and support for their addiction, leading to improved outcomes for individuals and for society as a whole.

Portugal's drug policy has been a resounding success, and Ireland is running out of excuses on why we are failing to follow suit, leaving a trail of destruction in our current drug policy’s wake. Portugal was once in a position even worse than we are now. As recently as 2000, it was facing 104.2 new cases of HIV per million, largely due to injecting drug use. In 2015, that was reduced to 4.2 cases per million thanks to a willingness to put government control aside and evidence first. By following suit and decriminalising, Ireland and other countries in a similar situation could take a daring step towards improving public health outcomes for the most vulnerable in our society and demonstrating our commitment to evidence-based policies that prioritise the well-being of our citizens.

This article was wirtten by Juliette Barnes. Juliette is a fellow with Young Voices Europe based in Ireland. She writes about free speech and civil liberties, among other topics.


1 European Drug Report 2023: Trends and Developments.