Would society work better if drugs were decriminalised?

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1. Introduction

Drugs are notorious for their damaging effects on individuals and communities, and for the burden they put on policing resources throughout the world.

Many governments are shifting towards more liberal drug policies, ranging from legalising marijuana to decriminalising harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin. But does a liberal drug policy help solve drug-related problems, or does it make them worse? What makes a successful drug policy and what are different countries doing to tackle the issue?

This guide is produced in conjunction with My Perfect Country, for the BBC World Service, presented by broadcaster Fi Glover, entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox, and Henrietta Moore, director of UCL Institute for Global Prosperity.

2. A snapshot of drugs policies around the world

Click on the labels to see the policies followed by these countries

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3. Portugal: A fresh perspective

In 2001, a law decriminalising all drugs in Portugal came into effect. While the possession and use of drugs remain illegal, the offence changed from a criminal one (where the offender could be sent to prison) to an administrative one.

Portugal's policies

Portugal’s change in drugs policy occurred alongside increased investment in the country's welfare state. The Ministry of Health oversees treatments for drug addiction, which are accessible to everyone free of charge. There’s also substantial aftercare to help users reintegrate into society.

Drug-related deaths and HIV infections

Portugal's reported rate of drug-related deaths is the second lowest in the European Union, after Romania. The country has also reported a continuous decrease in the number of drug-related HIV infections and Aids cases for a number of years.

Measurable effects

In 2014 the country's national co-ordinator on drugs and drug addiction said decriminalisation had halved the problem of heroin abuse since the late 1990s.

4. Could Portugal do more?

Lisbon residents on a night out in Bairro Alto give their opinions on the government's drugs policy and how society should deal with the issue.

5. Which country was first?

Which country was the first to do the following?

Legalise medical marijuana

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It is


Canada became the first country to legalise the possession of cannabis for chronically ill people in 2001.

Legalise marijuana trade

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It is


Uruguay became the first country in the world to make it legal to grow, sell and consume marijuana in 2013.

Decriminalise all drugs

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It is


In 2001, the socialist government changed the law to turn possession of drugs into an "administrative offence".