When Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 1999, they took a leap of faith. At the time, heroin addiction was spiraling out of control, filling prisons and killing people in the streets. Decades later, this radical policy shift has shown tremendous promise in improving public health.
By treating drug abuse as a medical rather than a criminal issue, HIV rates and overdoses have plummeted in Portugal with this approach. The number imprisoned for minor drug offenses has dropped by two-thirds. Fears that drug use would explode have not materialized. While some challenges remain, Portugal offers a model for keeping users alive and out of prison.
In 2022, Portugal opened a new supervised injection site continuing this health-centered approach. In a portable cabin in Porto, nurses care for addicts as they safely use drugs under medical watch. By providing clean needles and guidance into treatment when requested, as well as screening for HIV and hepatitis C, the center works to keep users safe.
With far-right figures threatening to reignite heavy-handed policing, Portugal’s model faces political tests ahead. But its core ethos — that humane, compassionate care works better than punishment — offers inspiration. Rather than isolate and jail vulnerable users, Portugal chases the courageous vision of harm reduction over punishment.