Lisbon shows drug decriminalisation policy beneficial, expert says

Ana Liffey project recommends not prosecuting in cases of drugs for personal use

The sky "did not fall in" after a decision to decriminalise drugs for personal use in Portugal, according to the vice-president of the health commission that deals with the issue in Lisbon.

On Monday, a report from the Ana Liffey drug project recommended that Ireland decriminalise drugs in quantities for personal use. A government working group is currently considering the issue, and will make recommendations early next year.

Dr Nuno Capaz, vice-president of Lisbon's "dissuasion commission", launched the report at the Mansion House, in Dublin. Dr Capaz said one main misconception was people equated decriminalisation of drug use with legalisation.

In Portugal, when a person is found in possession of a small quantity of drugs, they are summoned before one of the country’s 18 dissuasion commissions. These are made up of three people – a social worker, a psychiatrist and an attorney – and have sanctions open to them including fines, bans on visiting certain places or spending time with certain people, and, in the case of addiction, of referring for treatment.


Following the changes, introduced in 2001, drugs did not become more accessible to buy, Dr Capaz said.

Criminal justice

“Decriminalising is basically what we have with a lot of driving offences. You do something wrong, the police officer catches you and issues you a fine, that’s it. It doesn’t mean that you can go speed wherever you want, or you can drive without a seatbelt . . . People are not allowed to do all those things,” he said.

People arrested with drugs with an intention to sell were still dealt with through the criminal justice system, Dr Capaz said.

The commissions are run by the Portuguese ministry of health. Dr Capaz said under a healthcare approach to drug use, “you will deal with it the same way you deal with alcohol, or sugar, or salt”.

The Portuguese experience was initially seen as an “experiment” he said, but is now often cited as a model for progressive drug policy.

One of the main benefits was that drug addicts were more likely to seek treatment if the stigma of drug use and threat of criminal prosecution were removed, he said.

Dr John Collins, an academic studying international drug policy at the London School of Economics, also spoke at the launch. He said experience from other countries showed there was no “radical” expansion in local drug markets after decriminalisation.

However, Lord Mayor of Dublin Nial Ring raised a concern at the launch that liberalising current laws would give dealers a "charter to sell more drugs".

Meanwhile, Merchants Quay Ireland has submitted a planning application for the country’s first drug injection centre. The application proposes that the facility be located in the organisation’s Riverbank building on Merchant’s Quay and be accompanied by a full renovation of the exterior of the building. It is envisaged it will open next year, depending on the planning application process.

The injecting facility will include a reception, waiting area, medical rooms and areas for contact work clients.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times