Next UN Head Oversaw Portugal’s Drug Decriminalization

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The next leader of the United Nations was prime minister of Portugal when that country enacted a groundbreaking policy to decriminalize all drugs.

Antonio Guterres, who led Portugal from 1995 to 2002, was selected as the UN’s next secretary general in a straw poll of the body’s Security Council on Wednesday, with a formal vote expected on Thursday. The move will then be sent to the full UN General Assembly for final approval, which is expected.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs, including marijuana, heroin and cocaine. While use and possession remain technically illegal, people caught with small amounts of drugs are not arrested or sent to prison. Rather, they are brought before three-member commissions that can recommend treatment or assign fines and other administrative remedies.

The move was pushed through by Guterres’s ruling Socialist Party over objections from the opposition Social Democrats.

A 2009 Cato Institute report found that since decriminalization went into effect, drug use by Portuguese teenagers has dropped, as have drug-related deaths and HIV/AIDS rates among drug users. Enrollment in drug treatment is up. Drug trafficking and sales remain punishable as crimes.

It remains to be seen to what extent Guterres intends to use the new role to encourage other nations to enact similar policies, or if he will push the UN to revise international drug control treaties that seek to prevent countries from enacting further-reaching reforms like legalization. (The treaties do not require nations to maintain criminal penalties on drug use.)

While current Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has expressed support for “alternatives to criminalization,” the UN, under his leadership, has resisted attempts to revise the treaties, most recently at a General Assembly Special Session that took place in New York this April.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for drug prohibition to be replaced with a system of legal regulation.

While Guterres’s government enacted the decriminalization policy with his support, his position on broader legalization is not known.

Still, that Guterres’s bid was not vetoed by any of the five permanent Security Council members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) is a signal that support for ending the criminalization of drug use wasn’t a big enough sticking point with those nations’ leaders to have sunk his candidacy. And that could be a sign of things to come.

Guterres will take over for Ban in January.

Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.

About Author

Tom Angell covers policy and politics for Marijuana.com. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit organization Marijuana Majority, which works to ensure that elected officials and the media treat legalization as a serious, mainstream issue. Marijuana Majority led the effort to get the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pass a resolution telling the federal government to respect state marijuana laws, and orchestrated the first-ever endorsement for marijuana legalization by a U.S. Supreme Court justice (John Paul Stevens). Previously, Tom worked for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (All organizations are listed for identification purposes only.)

1 Comment

  1. Maybe the new head of the U.N. can finally put some pressure on our leaders to do what he did at home. Its been pretty obvious for a VERY LONG time now that law enforcement by the Fed’s has NEVER worked and it never will as long as the DEA has their say. Too many agents would be out of work as we ALL know that Law Enforcement whether its local or federal, is a BUSINESS, especially in regards to marijuana. We have a heroin problem in this country because the BIG DRUG COMPANIES pushed the pills into the eagerly waiting hands of the American public, then when the doctors started handing out pain pills like candy, the Fed’s stepped in and in a rather clumsy attempt to stem the flow, THEY created this heroin problem. I saw this personally as I am an EX heroin dealer. Practically overnight, I went from dealing various pills, to supplying heroin. I agree, there is NO simple fix, but the Fed’s need to re-evaluate the prohibition on ALL drugs. All their doing at the moment is creating a new generation of heroin addicts. The problem is NOT going to go away by just bitching about it.

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