Portugal's 2001 Drugs Liberalisation Policy: A UK Service Provider's Perspective on the Psychoactive Substances Act (2016).

Author:Banbury, Samantha


The Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA, 1971) is the primary legislation for controlling psychoactive substances in the UK and is distinguished by ABC classes of their harmfulness. An estimated 500 substances are controlled via the MDA (Reuter, 2011). The Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) was developed to guide the MDA regarding the harms associated with psychoactive substances. Despite efforts of the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) to establish an evidence-based approach to the MDA classification, the ABC classification is unsupported with scientific evidence (Nutt, 2009). For example, a study conducted by Chandler et al. (2014) found that UK authorities prioritise opioid (class A) use as a drug-related problem to be addressed within the community borders through substitution therapy and residential programs, but benzodiazepine (class C) abuse is a common problem among young parents, especially pregnant women, yet remains largely ignored (Chandler et al., 2014).

The Psychoactive Substances Act (2016) has been developed to curtail the use and supply of legal highs. The manufacture and availability of legal highs is diverse where developing a suitable classification system under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) to criminalise these drugs is a proven challenge. The Psychoactive Substances Act (2016) states that headshops will be the focus of enforcement (Home Office, 2016). However, easy access to these substances via the Internet will prove harder to monitor and control compared to headshops. Further, what constitutes a legal high is difficult to define and many of the challenges which presented the MDA will no doubt become apparent to the Psychoactive Substances Act (2016). According to this act, one is prohibited from "producing, supplying, offering to supply, possessing with an intent to supply or within places of custody, importing or exporting of any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect" (Nutt, King & Phillips, 2010). The Psychoactive Substances Act (2016) appears to not criminalise those in possession of legal highs (personal use) unless those in possession are in prison.

Due to the growing incidence of HIV and hepatitis among intravenous-injecting drug users, UK policymakers ensured the accessibility of needle exchange schemes and health education for the at-risk population segment (Monaghan, 2012). This period was characterised by treatment-focused harm reduction interventions. In 1995, the UK Tackling Drugs Together policy involved harsh criminalisation due to the high-level of drug-related criminal statistics (Monaghan, 2012). However, Hughes and Stevens (2010) argued that harsh criminalisation is a possible panacea for society, regardless of scientific evidence stating the opposite, and the fear that any steps towards decriminalisation would have "sent the wrong message" to the public (p. 999). In this respect, Newcombe (2008) has termed the UK drug policies as a "drug war." Indeed, the debate on drug policy remains polarised where the 'war on drugs' perpetuates the opinion of controlling drugs via the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) and in part the Psychoactive Substances Act (2016).

Other countries by comparison have employed alternate methods of control and enforcement. Decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use includes Portugal, Czech Republic, Brazil and Bolivia (Feiling, 2011). Indeed, Portuguese 15-year experience of decriminalisation of drugs has been widely promoted as a relevant strategy to eliminate the UK's 'war on drugs' through the adaptation of this policy framework (Feiling, 2011). Decriminalisation refers to "a new response to drug offences through administrative processes where "drug addiction is a health issue and not a criminal one" (Ponte, 2015, p. 18). As a result, the Portuguese approach entails that individuals are allowed to acquire, possess and personally use psychoactive drugs, including cannabis, in small quantities, without prosecution (Greenwald, 2009; Laqueur, 2014). Other countries, including the Netherlands, Spain and Italy, have utilised civil rather than criminal penalties for those in drug possession.

Whilst research to support decriminalisation remains contested, it appears that drug problems in these countries have not increased. Woods (2011) emphasised that Portugal has developed a well-shaped background for the implementation of the strategy which was aimed at reducing drug-related harm and criminal prosecution. This employs a pragmatic and humanistic approach, which prohibits the stigmatisation of drug users and involves the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction (CDT). The CDT comprised of legal representatives along with medical and social workers. Police officers are largely not involved in the process, unless there is a need to confiscate the drugs. Therefore, the Portuguese approach is distinct from that in the UK. The Portuguese model makes drug users the centre of an integrated circle of collaboration and favours a systems approach. For example, the approach has supported rehabilitation services, housing and social security measures (Greenwald, 2009; Laqueur, 2014) where reports have confirmed a decrease in the use of problematic drugs and subsequent criminal offending behaviours (Greenwald, 2009). Additionally, Murkin (2014) suggests that Portuguese drug use rates and drug-related deaths are lower than in Europe. Further, the number of arrests has decreased from 14,000, as a 2000-year indicator, to 5,000-6,000 in the late 2000's and the number of the incarcerated criminals due to drug-related issues reduced from 44% to 21% between 1999 and 2012.

Felix and Portugal (2015) have explored the efficacy of the drug policies aimed at the decriminalisation of illicit drugs. They analysed market price trends for cocaine and opioids for 10 European countries, with Portugal as the centrepiece, and concluded that the assumption is not always valid (Felix & Portugal 2015). Woods (2009) argues that decriminalisation will explicate potential economic advantages in a form of taxes and new business ventures among others, rather than lead to drug-related violence. According to Humphreys (2013), McKeganey (2007) and Newcombe (2008), policymakers need to develop appropriate policy initiatives in conjunction with the local scientific research and in collaboration with local professionals.

Lefebvre (2015) suggested that the Psychoactive Substances Act (2016) include the "use of drugs is an evil to eradicate, thanks to hard laws efficiently enforced" (Lefebvre 2015, p. 477). The other notable perspectives on anti-drug measures are reliance on physiology and treating the drug-related issues by doctors as well as reference to social domains and the elimination of the problem in a complex manner (Lefebvre 2015). Drawing upon the controversial and contradictory statistics, the current update to the UK drug policies seems to be an unjustified step, since criminalisation has not led to a decrease in criminally offending behaviours. Significant costs are spent on the detention of prisoners which provided a breakdown of the expenditure on drug related crime reported by police in England and Wales for the period of 2011/12. From an individual perspective...

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