This ‘tackling’ refers to the then unique approach taken by Portugal with regard to drugs, all the way back in 2000. Looking at it 20 years on, the Portuguese lesson could be learned by countries everywhere.

For years Portugal was economically stagnant, especially when compared to its close European neighbours. On top of an ailing economy, Portugal had a widespread drug problem. Heroin, the in-vogue substance of the time, was so popular that at one point reportedly 1 percent of the Portuguese population were taking it according to This led naturally to the spread of HIV and Aids amongst users; and by 2001 CIA estimates, over 22,000 people had contracted the disease, according to

Heroin had become normalised in Portugal, and action was required.

It is at this timely juncture that the ´Commission for the National Strategy for Drug Control`, spearheaded by Dr João Goulão, weighed in with Law 30/2000`. The law, the first of its kind in the Western world, decriminalised all narcotics - making Portugal a courageous outlier in Europe.

Crucially the law turned drug possession and use from a criminal issue into a public health one. With 2000’s law, the onus whilst dealing with drug addicts was on steering them “away from prisons and punishment’ and ‘towards doctors and healing”. The approach worked, as since the landmark decision, “the number of heroin addicts… drug-related overdose deaths, and HIV rates have all been in steady decline”. In a bid to ramp up the effectiveness of its new law too, Portugal also essentially reversed how it spent its money in the fight against drug addiction. As such, from 2000 onwards 10 percent of police funds have been spent on law enforcement, with the remaining 90 percent on healthcare and treatment.
The law was part of a wider bid to turn the perception of drugs on its head and, looking back today, one sees what a success it has been.

Possession of personal amounts of any drug – i.e. anything less than a 10-day supply – earns the ‘possessor’ an appearance in front of the same Commission as mentioned above, rather than a criminal court. Importantly, too, this ‘Commission’ is made up of a lawyer, a psychologist, and a social worker. It is not part of the criminal justice system and has no one with any prosecutorial powers on it.

Making the drugs trade transparent brings with it a number of positive side effects too. Along with a market of ‘cleaner’ drugs that are higher in purity and contain no hazardous substances bolted onto them, state control of the narcotics trade renders the black market obsolete.

Such progressive legislation also effectively puts an end to drug-related violence.

Speak to anybody in Brazil about lives not dominated by drug wars, and they would call you a “sonhador” / “a dreamer”. (Enormous swathes of Brazilian cities are completely ‘governed’ by drug factions, who often have more power and sway than the police).

Coming back to exemplary Portugal; HIV infection rates and drug-related deaths have plummeted since 2000, and the country now has both the lowest levels of drug use and the lowest drug mortality rate in Western Europe, according to a report by The Independent. In a public health sense, the law couldn’t have worked better.

What should not be overlooked is the extent to which Portugal’s maverick approach to drugs has played a part in its resuscitation as a country. Since 2000’s landmark decision, Portugal has enjoyed enormous progress, both socially and economically. In terms of tourism, Portugal has experienced year upon year increases in foreign tourist numbers since 2000 according to INE. Clearly the nation’s openness and accepting attitude towards drugs has not driven the tourists away – quite the opposite. In economic terms, bar the effects of the global financial crisis making themselves known in the early 2010’s, the economy has steadily improved ever since Portugal joined the EU in the 80s.

Only the global pandemic of 2020 has been able to slow this revival.

Finally, the law’s effect on crime rates has been hugely positive. A more negligible drug ‘black market’ means that far fewer people today are arrested and prosecuted on narcotics charges. Comparisons can be unhelpful, but here one cannot help but consider the lessons that could be learned by the USA. The United States is currently experiencing the worst drug crisis in its history; and opioids have so far claimed more American lives than the conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined according to

It seems clear; the US - and many other countries at that - is crying out for a João Goulão. Even as devastation of the last 7 months goes on, Portugal can be reassured that it has handled one scourge already.