Flag of Portugal

Cocaine is a drug made from the leaves of the coca plant, which is native to South America. It is a powerful stimulant and is known to be highly addictive. This is because it affects the production of natural chemical messenger dopamine in the brain.

This is commonly known as the ‘feel-good’ chemical and it is related to the control of pleasure and reward. Cocaine ‘floods’ the system with this chemical, resulting in a short-lived euphoria and rush of energy.

Users will often chase this feeling but continued use can lead to an increase in tolerance, meaning you need to use more and more for the same effect. You might also start to suffer withdrawal symptoms if you do not use the drug(1).

In the UK cocaine and the derivative crack cocaine are Class A drugs. This means that you can be sentenced to up to 7 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both for possession of the drug. You could receive a sentence of up to life in prison, an unlimited fine or both for involvement in supply or production of cocaine(2).

Portugals Approach to Cocaine

Portugal has a different approach to drug legislation compared to many other countries. Possession of drugs has been decriminalised in Portugal, but this does not mean that the possession, use, production or supply of drugs is legal in the country.
There are differences between legality and criminalisation but it is certainly the case that Portugal leans more towards helping those with a drug addiction to receive treatment for it rather than punishing them for using the drug.

Why did Portugal develop its drug strategy?

Portugal introduced its drug strategy in 2000 and the legislation came into effect in 2021. Essentially, this strategy decriminalised the use, acquisition and possession of all drugs, taking an approach that was focused on public health priorities.
One of the main reasons for this was a HIV and AIDS epidemic among drug users. In 1999, Portugal had the highest rate of HIV among injecting drug users in the European Union(3).

The law formed and overall strategy aimed to target limited police resources towards people who profited from the drugs trade, while enabling a public health approach to drug users. This was based on “the principles of humanism, pragmatism and the right of people who have drug problems to receive treatment”(4).

So is cocaine use legal in Portugal?

The short answer is no, cocaine use is not legal in Portugal. The situation is quite complex though and drug use and possession has been decriminalised. It’s important to note that this applies only to drugs for personal use and there are rules in place to determine the precise amounts of any drug that can be considered to be for personal consumption.

Regulations set out the maximum amounts of drugs by weight that can be considered to be for personal use. These amounts are based on estimates of the average amount of drugs required for 10 days’ personal consumption. If a person is caught with less than this amount (and they are not suspected of trafficking or supplying the drug) they will not be charged by police and courts. They will, however, be assessed by the local Commission for Dissuasion of Drug Addiction.

In Portuguese this is known as Comissões para a Dissuasão da Toxicodependência (CDT). This consists of a panel of three experts including doctors, psychologists, sociologists, social workers and legal experts(5).
Where an individual is appearing before a CDT for the first time and are considered to be low risk, the case is suspended and no further action is taken.

Repeated appearances can result in fines and if the person is considered to be moderate risk, non-mandatory interventions such as counselling can be proposed. If the individual is considered to be high risk, specialist addiction and substance misuse treatment may be offered(6).

This could include a treatment programme delivered via a residential rehab – which is generally considered to be the most effective way of treating a serious addiction problem. Again, though, this non-mandatory, which means that the person cannot be forced to undergo treatment.

Drug addiction in Portugal

Portugal’s drug strategy can raise high passions, with people on both sides of the fence arguing pros and cons. According to one study, written more than a decade after the legislation was introduced, both ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ academics have misinterpreted data and evidence around Portugal’s drug policy(7).

It is difficult to get definitive information that ‘proves’ Portugal has the right approach but there does seem to be some evidence that the strategy has helped to reduce serious addiction, initially at least. According to drug policy foundation Transform, drug death rates in Portugal remain amongst the lowest in the EU.

As of 2019, these stood at 6 deaths per million among people aged 15-64, just a quarter of the average figure of 23.7 per million across Europe and 50 times lower than the 315 deaths per million in Scotland(8).

Cocaine use in Portugal

When it comes to cocaine use specifically it is again difficult to obtain precise figures for obvious reasons. According to the third edition of the Survey on Addictive Behaviours, however, an estimated 0.4% of young males in Portugal aged between 15-34 and 0.3% of females in the same age group had taken cocaine over the previous year(9).

A 2018 report by the EU drugs agency, meanwhile, showed that the UK had the highest level of cocaine abuse in Europe, with 5.3% of people aged between 15 and 34 having used the drug(10).

Find out more about cocaine addiction

If you want to find out more about cocaine addiction, or are seeking confidential help and advice for your own cocaine usage, get in touch today. At Step 1 Recovery we’re experts in helping people to overcome addictions of all kinds, including addiction to cocaine.

Sources of Information

1 https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/cocaine
2 https://www.gov.uk/penalties-drug-possession-dealing
3 https://www.portugal.com/op-ed/portugal-drug-laws-under-decriminalization-are-drugs-legal-in-portugal/
4 https://kar.kent.ac.uk/13325/1/BFDPP_BP_14_EffectsOfDecriminalisation_EN.pdf.pdf
5,9 https://www.emcdda.europa.eu/system/files/publications/11331/portugal-cdr-2019_0.pdf
6, 8 https://transformdrugs.org/blog/drug-decriminalisation-in-portugal-setting-the-record-straight
7 https://www.drugfoundation.org.nz/matters-of-substance/archive/may-2013/drugs-are-legal-portugal/
10 https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/sep/22/uk-had-highest-number-of-young-cocaine-users-in-europe-last-year-report