On a recent trip to Lisbon Portugal I experienced (as is usual in many cities with tourists) the determination of street sellers trying to persuade me to purchase sunglasses, hats (despite wearing both), bracelets, souvenirs, and by the usual variety of street artists. However I found a noticeable difference compared to other tourist destinations in the volume of men of all ages and backgrounds selling some form of drugs. On an average evening walk through the city centre I’d be approached at least a dozen times with offers of ‘weed’, ‘hash’, ‘hashish’, ‘cocaine’, repeated several times because the assumption seemed that my refusal meant I just didn’t understand what the seller was offering.
As a final sales pitch against my continued disinterest the seller would insist that ‘it’s good quality’ and on several occasions even produced a small bag as evidence they could fulfil this promise, the whole process taking place in a busy central shopping street.
Following one of these frequent events my partner remarked that “it’s probably because drugs are legal in Portugal, aren’t they?” The ensuing conversion was around the difference between ‘decriminalisation’ and ‘legalisation’, why it’s a much better approach to treat drug use as a medical issue rather than a criminal one, and why it’s a shame other countries aren’t brave enough to follow Portugal’s example.
However I suggested an obvious limitation with the approach taken by the Portuguese decriminalisation highlighted by the seller’s assurance that “it’s good quality”. As I wasn’t contemplating a purchase I hadn’t even begun to entertain considerations about price and quality, but the seller’s insistence of good quality instantly raised my scepticism. Of course the purchase was unlikely to hold a money back guarantee or certificate of purity – any purchase made in the street would be subject to ‘buyer beware’.
In 2001 when the Portuguese government voted to decriminalise personal quantities of all illegal drugs the policy was among the most progressive. The 2001 law was only an amendment to the aspects of the existing 1993 drug law which related to possession. The law regarding the sale and traffic of illegal drugs was unchanged and penalties remain (up to 12 years imprisonment).
I have visited Amsterdam on several occasions where cannabis consumption is controlled within licenced ‘coffee shops’ and I don’t recall being continually approached on the street to purchase drugs. And in those South American countries where cannabis has been legalised it has allowed the implementation of controls and taxation on supply.
The Portuguese model is often hailed as a success, not least for the reduction in drug related deaths, but maybe there’s still more to be done around the regulation of supply.