Next UN Head Oversaw Portugal’s Drug Decriminalization

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.

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