Winning the War on Drugs: A Case for the Portuguese Policy Model

By Emily Lugg (’23)

If drugs are a war, many policy analysts and public health experts would argue that America is losing on all fronts. As Nicholas Kristof notes in his 2017 opinion piece “How to Win the War on Drugs,” despite the fact the American criminal justice system dedicated billions of dollars over the last several decades to incarcerating drug users and dealers, the United States is still plagued by drug addiction and drug-related violence. Moreover, the United States’s decision to institute reforms such as mandatory minimum sentencing and repeat offender laws has created a massive prison population that damages communities and poses a huge cost to taxpayers (1). In response, there has been a public outcry for the American government to adopt policies with a greater focus on public health, such as those implemented in Vancouver or Portugal (2, 3). To evaluate potential policy reforms, Peter Moskos sets forth three criteria for what a successful drug policy should accomplish: first, it should preserve life; second, it should reduce incarceration rates; and third, it should be financially sustainable and effective (4). Using Moskos’ criteria, I argue that Portugal’s decriminalization effort does successfully reduce crime and improve its residents’ quality of life in a way that could be effectively replicated in the United States. Additionally, I critically assess the primary components of the Portuguese model against corresponding components of the American model, supporting this comparison with examples from Season 3 of The Wire and Kristof’s “How to Win a War on Drugs.”

Both the United States and Portugal struggled with illicit drugs in the last few decades of the 20th century (3). However, while the United States chose to pursue a zero-tolerance policy that punished drug use and trafficking with harsh prison sentences, Portugal chose to decriminalize the use of all drugs in 2001 (1, 3). Ideology lies at the root of this vast policy difference. While Portugal sees drug addiction as a chronic illness that requires medical treatment, America frames these issues as matters of criminal justice, or at least did when a swath of drug- and sentencing-related reforms was enacted in the 1980s (3). In Season 3 of The Wire, Major “Bunny” Colvin is motivated by the typical American criminal justice framing when he decides to set up a “free-zone” in which drugs were decriminalized. His goal in creating “Hamsterdam,” as its vendors called it, was not to create a drug policy that aligned with public health initiatives but to reduce the crime rate in his district. As a result, his experiment lacked some of the specific features that make the Portuguese model so effective, such as active addiction intervention and accessible drug treatment programs. 

Promisingly, Katherine Seelye documents a recent shift in American public opinion (particularly in the white middle class) away from viewing addiction as a crime and towards treating it as a disease, offering some hope that some aspects of the Portuguese model could gain the broad public and political support required to enact and enforce similar policies in the United States. It is, after all, a lack of public support and official political backing that kills Hamsterdam in the denouement of Season 3. 

It is important to note that decriminalization is a separate regulative pillar from legalization. Portugal did not make drug usage legal. Instead, it simply chose to treat drug use as an administrative offense, similar to a traffic ticket (3). Those caught using drugs do not go to court or prison, but instead, attend a brief “Dissuasion Commission” meeting with social workers who try to intervene before the user develops an addiction (3). Meanwhile, the traditional American model treats drug use as a major crime. Most states and the federal government enacted mandatory minimum sentences for possession of illegal drugs (1). As a result of this mandate and other reforms, such as truth-in-sentencing laws and reduced roles of parole boards, the prison population exploded between 1980 and 2000, even though men were much less involved in crime (1, 5). These high rates of incarceration posed a threat to the social cohesion of the communities to which the incarcerated people belonged, particularly Black men and their children, who experienced a much higher likelihood of mental illness, behavioral problems, and certain health conditions (1). The Portuguese model also contrasts the treatment of drug addicts in “Hamsterdam,” who were not punished, but were also not given any active intervention. Bubbles’ brief conversation with Johnny during Episode 7 of The Wire is one of only two on-screen attempts to dissuade Johnny from his drug habit in the entirety of Season 3. Moreover, Bubbles does not have the professional training to intervene. In Johnny’s case, Portuguese-style intervention may have prevented his drug-related death. 

In regards to its punishment of those who use drugs, the Portuguese model satisfies Moskos’ first criteria of preserving life. Portugal’s model of early intervention catches people before they fully succumb to addiction. It also enables health experts, such as those at the community outreach group Crescer, to monitor users while they consume drugs, supply them with clean needles, and safely intervene in the event of an overdose (3). In Season 3 of The Wire, pastors, politicians, and public health officials alike all raved about the opportunity to tangibly help a concentrated vulnerable community through methods such as clean needle distributions, condom distributions, and blood testing sites, which were made significantly easier because no one feared criminal consequences. Since implementing these reforms, Portugal has experienced a massive decrease in drug usage and overdose deaths (3). In contrast, an estimated 64,000 Americans died of an overdose in 2016 (3). 

The Portuguese model also meets Moskos’ second criteria of reducing incarceration rates, since it diverts users from prisons to treatment programs. This reduction in turn accomplishes the third criterion of financial efficacy. Arrests are labor-intensive and time-consuming, and keep police from doing other investigative work (4). Moreover, as Kristof writes, it is “incomparably cheaper” to treat those suffering from addiction than to jail them. For example, in an article about prescribed heroin in Vancouver, Dan Levin estimates that prescribing drugs such as heroin in a treatment setting can save an average of $40k in average lifetime societal costs per person.  It also avoids some of the societal harms caused by mass incarceration. As a result, it creates a tangible improvement in its residents’ quality of life. 

Importantly, Portugal did not decriminalize the act of drug dealing, which is an offense that is still prosecuted and can result in jail time (3). Western, Heinzmann, Moskos, and Venkatesh all discuss how drug dealing and trafficking that is related to gang activity can contribute to massive violence within a community (5, 6, 4, 7). Yet, dissuading police from punishing mere possession or drug use allows officers to investigate drug dealers and gang-related violence instead, especially with support and liasons in the wider community. Though Hamsterdam allowed drug dealers to work with impunity, it was partially implemented to avoid having to waste officers’ time on low-level offenses. In Episode 2, Bunny lectures his squad on how the “great moment of civic compromise” in which drinkers hid their alcohol in paper bags allowed policemen to focus on real police work. His intention in creating Hamsterdam was to find a parallel to this for drugs. 

Critics of the Portuguese model may express concern that it does not address crimes such as theft or prostitution that drug users may commit to fund their supplies, as Kristof and Levin concede in their studies of Portugal and Vancouver. Just because drugs were readily and openly accessible in Hamsterdam did not preclude Bubbles and Johnny from concocting a scheme to trick a man into giving them cash at the start of Episode 5; in fact, the readily available drugs could have incentivized their crimes. Indeed, the Portuguese model does not provide a solution to this problem, and Kristof does not comment on whether these types of crime have increased since Portugal’s shift in drug policy. However, since officers no longer have to worry about arresting individuals for the mere possession of drugs, they will have more time and resources to dedicate to responding to other types of crime. 

Others may express concern that Portugal’s model may not work as effectively in the US due to America’s the US’s significantly looser gun laws and its far greater problem with prescription opioids, which are legally available throughout the United States with a prescription. Kristof notes that Portugal’s drug market was already far less violent due to its tight gun restrictions, so it is unclear what the effects would be on the drug market and gang-related violence in the US, where gun laws are far less stringent. Additionally, Portugal’s reforms, which are mostly focused on illicit recreational drugs, may not work as well in addressing the widespread abuse of prescriptions. As a result, if the United States chooses to adopt the Portuguese model, it must keep these concerns in mind. 

Nothing is a perfect fix for the so-called “war on drugs,” but research and empirical evidence indicate America has better policy alternatives available. Portugal’s model of decriminalizing drug use allows for active intervention and better allocation of police resources, which satisfies Moskos’ criteria of preserving life, reducing incarceration, and efficiently using money. This makes Portugal a blueprint for reducing crime and improving the quality of life for Americans living in poor urban neighborhoods. 


  1. Raphael, S., & Stoll, M. A. “The Policy Changes Driving Incarceration Growth.” In Why Are So Many Americans in Prison? (pp. 97–120). Russell Sage Foundation, 2013.
  2. Levin, Dan. “Vancouver Prescriptions for Addicts Gain Attention as Heroin and Opioid Use Rises.” New York Times, 21 April 2016.
  3. Kristof, Nicholas. “How to Win a War on Drugs.” New York Times, 22 September 2017.
  4. Moskos, Peter. “Prohibition: Al Capone’s Revenge.” In Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District, STU-Student edition., 158–83. Princeton University Press, 2008.
  5. Western, Bruce. “Inequality, Crime, and the Prison Boom.” In Punishment and Inequality in America, 34–51. Russell Sage Foundation, 2006.
  6. Heinzmann, David. “Leaderless Chicago street gangs vex police efforts to quell violence.” Chicago Tribune, 29 July 2016.
  7. Venkatesh, Sudhir. Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. 

Emily Lugg is a Political Science major and has a minor in the Hesburgh Program in Public Service. Her essay was originally written for Professor William Carbonaro’s Sociology and American Studies cross-listed course ‘Inner City America’

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