Drug Decriminalisation: Could the UK Follow Portugal?

Benedict Pignatelli

People go back and forth on the subject of decriminalisation. Portugal is the current torch bearer of decriminalising drugs, boasting very positive results since they implemented the changes, as will be shown below. The polarising debate on drug decriminalisation rages in the UK.

Decriminalising drugs can be a good way to regulate the drug trade, and keep users as safe as possible. Furthermore, it is hoped that the government taking control of the drug trade diminishes the influence of organised crime.

However, in some instances, such as in Canada where cannabis was legalised in 2018, there has been an increase in the strength of the drug. Worse still, a thriving illicit drug trade continues, despite the legalisation of the product.

There are several countries where decriminalisation or even legalisation have been trialled, to differing effects. Despite what Priti Patel may advocate, the War on Drugs has lost much momentum since its conception in the early 1970s. Debate still rages on whether progressive methods are the best way forward.

Decriminalisation, legalisation, and the grey area

Several regions or even whole countries have eased the restrictions on drugs; decriminalisation and legalisation are becoming increasingly common, as are medical prescriptions. In December last year, Malta was the first EU country to legalise cannabis. They have taken a step further than Spain, Portugal or the Netherlands, crossing over what has been described as the ‘grey area’, by formally legislating rather than just looking the other way. For instance, although the Netherlands is a famous example of a cannabis hotspot, the strict and contradictory legislation means most coffee shops in the Netherlands buy their product from illegal gangs who still control large amounts of the trade.

California, Vermont and Colorado were among the pioneers of medical marijuana in the United States, allowing people in pain to use an otherwise illegal drug if it eases their trouble. Although some steps in this direction have been made by the UK, they are still a long way behind in the race.


Despite the trouble with drug-related crime in Canada, they are still constantly trying to fight these issues. Last month, British Columbia began a three-year trial allowing adults to possess small amounts of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA. Although the substances remain illegal, people possessing them in small amounts will not face charges.

One reason for this move is the belief that the ideological stigma against drug users prevented many from seeking help. This comes after all-time highs in overdoses in Canada, with over 9,000 deaths since 2016 in British Columbia alone (where the trial is taking place).

This trial, certainly within the grey area motif, will look to see if any improvements arise.


At the turn of the century, Portugal, facing dangerously high drug crime and death rates, made the radical decision to decriminalise much of the drug use in the country. It was not the first country to do so, nor the last, but it has become the shining example of decriminalisation done well.

First-time offenders have their case suspended (no further action taken), with small fines being given out for repeat offenders. There are non-mandatory counselling sessions and treatment centres available also.

In the first five years after the reforms, drug deaths dropped significantly, and have remained low since. Most strikingly, the rate of HIV diagnoses linked to injecting drugs has dropped radically from 50% of the EU diagnoses to 1.7%. Statistics have stayed well below the EU average for over two decades.

Should the UK move towards decriminalisation?

As mentioned, there have been small steps in the UK towards decriminalisation. For instance, Lord Mayor Sadiq Khan has reportedly launched a commission into legalising cannabis in the UK. However, there are reasons why drug reform beyond just cannabis should be seriously considered.

Recent reports that the Taliban have once again shut down the heroin trade in Afghanistan, allegedly funded and set up by the CIA, have caused concerns in the UK that the lack of heroin will cause people to reach out to other, more dangerous alternatives like Fentanyl. This is the drug that was an overwhelming contributor to over 107,000 deaths by overdose in the US in 2021, a figure that is rising massively year by year.

If the UK decriminalised drugs, it could be possible to regulate their usage much more safely than they currently can. For example, regular testing of the drugs in question helps identify the purity and potency of a drug, which can be a life-saving practice. Aside from drug testing, practices like Overdose Prevention Centres (OPCs), or assistance treatments have shown good results in mitigating risk. Although the evidence suggests it is not a straightforward mountain to climb, the results from Portugal demonstrate the benefits are colossal.

About the author: Benedict Pignatelli is a contributing writer from Dublin, Ireland. He studied World Religions and Arabic Language, and has an interest in Middle Eastern politics. He also writes fiction and was longlisted for the 2019 Bridport Prize.