The Portuguese Paradigm Shift on Drug Policy

In the year 2000 the Portuguese government announced their intention to pass a law that would decriminalize the use of all drugs across the nation – everything, from weed to heroin. This was the first time any country in the EU had done something like this; not even the Netherlands had such a liberal drug policy. Lisbon already had a reputation as Europe’s “worst drug ghetto” and its “most shameful neighbourhood.” The criticism was fairly deserved. In 1999, Portugal had an estimated 100,000 heroin addicts in the country – a staggering 1% of the nation’s entire population. In addition to this, Portugal had the highest rate of HIV/AIDS related deaths in the entire EU and recorded that 45% of that sub-population were intravenous drug users. Connected to these medical concerns, the issue was an economic abscess, as these addicts (many of them infected with HIV/AIDS), drained the system of free healthcare provided to citizens by the Portuguese government.

So the press descended on Lisbon in the summer of 2001 as the government was about to enact the new law. They wrote articles and snapped photos of addicts shooting up in Lisbon’s alleyways and strung-out backpackers lying passed out in the streets. All of this illustrated the belief that things were about to get even worse. Locals worried that their cities and neighbourhoods would become havens for ‘drug tourists’. Conservatives in the government called it “pure lunacy” and Paulo Portas, of the People’s Party, predicted that the Algarve would be relegated in the summers to drug-seeking tourists coming to Portugal just to get high.

Let’s be clear about this though. The law enacted in 2001 did not legalize drugs in Portugal. What it did was change drug use from a criminal issue to a medical issue. So anyone arrested with a “ten day supply for personal use” or less is not be treated as a criminal, but as a medical patient in need of treatment. Rather than facing criminal charges or time in jail, arrestees are taken to a ‘Dissuasion Council,’ who determines the best course of action. The council members, consisting mainly of psychologists and medical professionals, dress casually in t-shirts and jeans, making the procedure seem less judicial; the idea being that addicts can feel comfortable being honest and ask for help without the fear of prosecution.

Councils often recommend free government-sponsored treatment to the addicts, who can accept or decline the offer. Given the choice, an overwhelming majority opts to take the help. 6,040 addicts were in treatment in the year 2000, before the new law. In 2008, rehabilitation programs treated 25,808 citizens and HIV infections from drug use had dropped nearly 90%. The numbers were showing that the law was indeed a success. In the year 2000, Portugal reported 2,508 new cases of HIV. After the implementation of the new laws, that number shrank to only 220 cases in the year 2008, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

While drug related deaths, cases of HIV/AIDS, criminal charges, and casual drug use have decreased, the lifetime use of illicit drugs has increased from 7.8% to 12% since 2001. Many, however, attribute this to the candour of interviews now that the legal penalties have diminished. And there is no statistical record of drug use before 2001, only statistics associated with disease and death in their relation to intravenous drugs. Statistically speaking though, the new system has been regarded as a success by the international community and the fears of ‘drug tourism’ in Portugal have been dismissed. As it stands today, the success of the Portuguese approach to drugs is being considered as an effective model for other countries with similar issues. Several other European countries have been re-examining their laws and looking to Portugal as a starting point. Spain and Italy have already dramatically reduced drug penalties and Norway and Denmark are both spending time studying Portugal’s approach to the issue. While new policies on an international level may be far off, the Portuguese themselves have set a lasting precedent by removing the criminal aspect of drug use from casual users and promoting healthier practices for more habitual users.

Illegal Chinese - EXPOSED!

The Illegal Chinese Restaurant - Rua da Guia no. 9
A Lisbon Local Secret

Tucked away in the rarely-visited side streets of Martim Moniz, past a small ginjinha bar, on the right, is an open door. This is not just a home. This is a family-run Chinese restaurant in disguise. The nearly 80 items on their menu range from seafood, to meat, to veggies, soups, and noodles. Go with friends – they will be so impressed with your local knowledge! Share bowls of rice, get one more dish from the menu than you have number of people and pass it around. Even with drinks and complimentary oranges for dessert, you'll still be challenged to spend more than 8€ per person.

To get there, walk or take the metro to Martim Moniz. Walking up from the south end of the plaza, stick to the right side and follow Rua da Mouraria until you see the statue of a Portuguese guitar on your right. That signifies the beginning of Rua do Capelão. Follow this narrow street through a small plaza and it will turn into Rua da Guia. Entering a second small plaza, the restaurant is on the left at no. 9. The door will be open as long as they’re serving.

Walk up the winding stairs and you’ll start hearing pots and pans and, of course, you’ll smell the food. Someone will meet you at the top of the stairs and set you down at a table with a menu, a piece of paper, and a pencil. The menu is only available in Chinese and Portuguese, so you may want to study up a bit before you go. Write down the numbers representing the dishes you want and a ‘x10’ next to #73 (beer). Your drinks will come first, along with complimentary rice cakes. And once the dishes start coming, they come fast so work quickly.

They offer chopsticks and I suggest you use them or learn to – they actually have instructions on the back. Very professional. If you can’t do it, they do have forks and spoons…but I am disappointed in you.

Oh, and remember that small ginjinha bar I mentioned? You'll find it on Rua do Capelão, on your way out of the alley to Martim Moniz, and it's the perfect place for a liquid dessert. The owner will light up when you enter and will persuade you to stay for some pomegranate seeds and maybe a free drink or two if he likes you. Meanwhile, he loves to show you his old photos and is delighted to pose for new ones.

Thanks, Sofie, for exposing me to this amazing restaurant, and my apologies for spilling the beans.