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Pew on Pot and What We Can Learn from Portugal

Pew on Pot and What We Can Learn from Portugal

At first, I didn’t think I had much of an opinion about whether or not marijuana should be legal. At the addiction treatment center I founded and serve, we treat people without thought of whether or not their drug of choice is legal or illegal. Of course, I believe that addicts should be in treatment and have watched with interest what is called “The Portuguese Experiment,” in which Portugal decriminalized the personal use of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. That experiment has fared reasonably well. Would the same be true here in the US, if all states legalized marijuana?

To be clear, Portugal did not legalize drugs. Wellsphere reports:

They decriminalized them—drug use and possession have been deemed administrative, not criminal, matters. Drug trafficking remains a criminal offense. Portugal is the only nation in the European Union (EU) to have made this blanket move, and Portuguese health officials have been at pains to point out that decriminalization in Portugal does not mean that drug use is in any way condoned or encouraged there. 

And the results are in. Since 2001, the use of marijuana in Portugal is up, but the use of heroin is down, along with drug related deaths. What have increased are treatment options. All told, decriminalization of many drugs has been good for Portugal and the Portuguese addicts who have benefited from access to quality treatment.

There are similar naysayers in the American debate over marijuana legalization as there were in Portugal. There are differences in the debate to be sure. Marijuana use was decriminalized in Portugal, not legalized and there was a strong commitment to treatment that has not occurred here in the States.

However, according to the Pew Report, there are similar fears in the US as there were in Portugal about marijuana in particular being legalized. According to the Pew Report:

The most frequently mentioned reason why people oppose legalization is that marijuana generally hurts society and is bad for individuals (43% say this). And while many supporters of legalization say that marijuana is less dangerous than other drugs, 30% of opponents have the opposite view: They point to the dangers of marijuana, including the possibility of abuse and addiction.


About one-in-five opponents of legalization (19%) say marijuana is illegal and needs to be policed, 11% say it is a gateway to harder drugs and 8% say it is especially harmful to young people. A small share of opponents (7%) say that while the recreational use of marijuana should be illegal, they do not object to legalizing medical marijuana.


There are valid points among those who push against marijuana’s legalization in the USA. Marijuana does change the physical structure of the brain. Those who abuse the drug long-term show cognitive failures. At the same time, though we know that there are some medical benefits to marijuana use, we have not yet done the studies needed to know precisely what those benefits are or what the long-term and potentially negative side effects may be.

In short, we should look to the Portuguese and support treatment for substance abusers rather than jail time. The rest will come out in the wash.

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Pew on Pot and What We Can Learn from Portugal

Richard Taite

Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also co-author of the book Ending Addiction for Good.

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APA Reference
Taite, R. (2015). Pew on Pot and What We Can Learn from Portugal. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2018, from


Last updated: 22 May 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 22 May 2015
Published on All rights reserved.