As the “War on Drugs” threatens to heat up, we might ask our current administration to take a step back and consider Portugal. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs—yes, all—including hard drugs like heroin and meth. Critics expected the incidence of drug abuse in Portugal would skyrocket as a result. That is not what happened. Drug use fell over the ensuing 15 years and more importantly, drug-related deaths fell precipitously.

Drugs aren’t legal in Portugal but being in possession of any drug is also not criminal. Rather the country treats drug use as a health issue. Anyone caught with less than a 10-day supply of any drug is required to get drug treatment. There is no criminal charge, no court hearing, and no incarceration. The policy isn’t expected to rid Portugal of drug abuse; rather, the intended outcome is harm reduction.

Not only is this a cheaper solution than endlessly incarcerating people who suffer from an illness—which drug addiction is—but it has been highly successful. Where here in the United States drug overdose deaths are increasing at an alarming rate, in Portugal, drug-induced deaths have nose-dived. The drug-related death rate in Portugal is five times lower than the average European Union rate and Portugal now has the lowest death rate from drugs of all EU countries. In Portugal, only 3 people out of every million die of a drug overdose. That is staggeringly low. For perspective: Germany’s rate is 17.6 per million and Sweden’s is 69.7 per million. It wasn’t always that way. Prior to the drug law reforms, Portugal had a serious drug problem and one of the worst heroin epidemics, not only in the EU, but in the entire Western world.

Since the new drug laws include funding for drug workers who hand out clean needles and condoms, the drug law reform has also seen drug-related HIV infections drop 95 percent in Portugal.

Here in the U.S., we spend 90 percent of drug policy funds on policing and punishment and 10 percent on treatment. In Portugal, the ratios are reversed. When a person is caught using drugs in Portugal, the first line of treatment is to assess whether he or she is addicted and if so, to make the addict safe. This doesn’t mean enforcing what may be ineffective approaches such as requiring the addict to go cold turkey … or else. Rather, the addict is provided with information on safe use and told not to use hard drugs on their own. They are also provided with free medical services that may include methadone or buprenorphine treatment. Those who are not determined to be addicts, are deemed “recreational users” and their cases are suspended.

It’s not that Portugal is encouraging drug use by its policy of not punishing the user, but rather the country is taking a realistic approach, which includes a national plan for the reduction of addictive behaviors and dependence. And because drug abuse is no longer punished or stigmatized in Portugal, addicts are more likely to seek help.

As our U.S. morgues are increasingly being filled with drug overdose victims and our jails over-crowded with individuals whose only crime is being an addict, perhaps it would be wiser of our officials to take a close look at Portugal’s drug policy rather than re-ignite a failed “War on Drugs.”

Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg is available for a complimentary consultation regarding your criminal matter. He can be reached at his Irvine office at (949) 474-8008 or by email at