Making Compassion The Norm: A View From Portugal

(“The Brazilian Government sends hundreds of soldiers into favelas as Drug Related Violence Increases” – Business Insider, 2017) 

By: Akshat, Rohan, and Govardhan

Despite the waning of global support on the US-led War on Drugs, The norms of anti-drug and anti-addict practices have been rapidly adopted by states in the global south, particularly Latin America. Beyond a shift in rhetoric regarding these practices, The only visible shift in offering a solution in aiding the normalization of these norms appears to lie in a drug policy that actively seeks to take care of its citizens, its addicts, one offered up by the state of Portugal.

“A nation that is tough on drugs must also be compassionate to those addicted to drugs.” – George.W.Bush, in an address about the National Drug Control Strategy of 2002.

Ever since the “War on Drugs” was declared by President Richard Nixon, on June 18, 1971, the issue of drugs has always been framed as one contingent on saving the very “soul” of the individual1, that being, the addict. Yet, in practice, the War on Drugs (or WoD) has always been a framework that allowed and encouraged violent action against all those related to drugs in any manner: from production to consumption. Combined with the US’s desire to extend this framework at a global scale, this has resulted in its codification as an international norm2. Drugs were “bad” and “The United States was going after them”, as Ronald Reagan put it3. A country that does not have a “hard” policy on drugs is perceived as one that has lost its way, and the US is more than happy to guide them on, in addition to providing the tools and funding to do so. The US, in its bid to gain more moral capital through the WoD, hence seeked to use the “individual” addict as a mere rhetorical device, for the true sufferer is meant to be the state or more accurately, its hegemony. In quintessential realist fashion, America sought to retain its hegemony on the globe towards the tail end of the cold war – by not only emphasizing the importance of the norm but also legitimizing its methodologies to achieve it4. The WoD was, therefore, as much a war on drugs as much as it was a war on addicts themselves. 

As the “War” spread across the globe, a transformation can be observed as it approaches the states of Latin America. By virtue of its proximity and pivotal position to the “drug problem” in the United States, it was routinely stigmatized by American Presidents for the complicitness of the states in the drug trade5. This stigmatization instead allowed these states, namely, Mexico, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil to strengthen their own norms of “narcotraffic”. This recognition of stigma meant that not only were these states actively participating in the WoD, it also meant that they themselves were now acting as norm entrepreneurs within and for the global south.This led to further emulation of practices of violent repression, racial profiling and mass incarceration alongside the common trend of any lack of treatment facilities for addicts.Abstinence was the only route an addict could be recognized as a legitimate part of society6, the alternative would be to lose one’s identity and dignity.For the rights and the well-being of the addict to be restored, these norms of violence must be rebuked and more importantly, disproved. 

Peace, Drugs and the Winners – A Case Study in Portugal 

An Illustration by Peter Schrank for The Economist, 2009 

“You know those lines on a running track?” Pereira asked me. He believed that everyone – however imperfect – was capable of finding their own way, given the right support. “Our love is like those lines.” – Guardian, 2017 

Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink’s seminal work on “Norm Entrepreneurship” has been instrumental in helping us understand the emergence of international norms7. However, the term has often been invoked to advance the hegemony of the US, as we have witnessed in the case of its War on Drugs. They are deemed as the ‘agents of change’ who initiate, set-up and promote new global norms. However, an over-emphasis on Norm Entrepreneurship projects a rigid international norm framework. As Alan Bloomfield argues in his article, this diminishes the scope for any norm resistance or norm violation, which undermines the importance of ‘norm antipreneurs’8. Most fundamentally, he argues that ‘recognising the antipreneur role enables the construction of a spectrum of roles that actors might play’ ranging from being defenders of the status quo to being ‘implacable resisters’9. Indeed, understanding these different roles furnishes a holistic explanation of norm behaviours at the global level and provides an ‘overall balance to the norm dynamics literature’10

Building on this argument further, Rebecca Adler-Nissen’s article on “Stigma Management in International Relations” demonstrates that ‘international society is in part constructed through the stigmatization of “transgressive” and norm-violating states and their ways of coping with stigma’ . Thus, stigmatized states often deploy three different coping strategies: ‘stigma recognition’, ‘stigma rejection’ or ‘counter-stigmatization’. Moreover, due to a lack of consensus on what entails a ‘normal state behaviour’ also complicates our understanding of what constitutes as a ‘norm-violation’ or as ‘norm-entrepreneurship’. 

Violation or Entrepreneurship was the question for the foreign media in 2001, when Portugal, in the grips of concurrent drug abuse and HIV crises, passed a legislature that decriminalised all drugs. This meant that the sale, possession or consumption of substances was no longer a criminal offence11. This is not to be mistaken for depenalisation, it was still an administrative offense, offenders would be sent before a commission to be fined if they were found possessing above the legal or medical thresholds assigned to them. Portugal’s move was labeled “radical”5 and “ultraliberal”12 by foreign media outlets and subjugated to a multiplicity of documentation that would predict the failure of this policy. However, with the primary aim of this policy to be the reduction of deaths from the epidemics of HIV and AIDS, there was a dramatic drop in the number of new cases reported; “in 2000 of 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million in 2015.”5. Conversely, the treatments for addiction have also substantially increased with the amount of registered individuals in Portugal quadrupling in the first 8 years of the policy 6. Even with its successes as a policy, Portugal was still stigmatized as a norm-entrepreneur. As a country that had approached the problem of drug abuse with rehabilitation and tolerance at the center of their policies, as opposed to the resulting fallout of violence and racism elicited by the West’s response to drugs, in the War on Drugs. 

Portugal’s approach mirrors Adler-Nissen’s theory of states wearing their stigmatization as a badge13, challenging the dominant moral discourse that had engulfed the approach to the problem of drug abuse. Supporting the dominant moral discourse, the Obama-led White House released a statement on the shortcomings of Portugal’s policy and the research work connected to it14.

However, Transform, a drug policy foundation based in New York has provided evidence that decriminalisation had positive effects on statistics connected to HIV/AIDS infections, drug-related deaths, crime and heavily reduced the prison population since it’s conception in 200115. When this overwhelming evidence is there to be provided for Portugal’s positive outcome from this policy, its approach was health-centered and non-violent, not to mention more economical in the face of just shy of $1 Trillion dollars spent by the US government since 1971, as recorded in 201516. The conceptualisation of what it means to be “radical” is challenged by this policy. The word ‘radical’ and its connotations put forth by foreign media outlets implies a form of intangibility and irrationality, rendering it impossible to conceptualise for an individual molded by western norms. Destigmatization begins at the understanding of the stigma itself, and Portugal has gone above and beyond to provide support and understanding for its citizens, through government-led initiatives of rehabilitation. 


McGee, Chester. “’Smoke a Joint, Lose License’ Law.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 8 Dec. 1994, ● Adler-Nissen, Rebecca. “Stigma Management in International Relations: Transgressive Identities, Norms, and Order in International Society.” International Organization, vol. 68, no. 1, 2014, pp. 143–176. Print. doi:10.1017/s0020818313000337. 

Bloomfield, Alan. “Norm Antipreneurs and Theorising Resistance to Normative Change.” Review of International Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, 2015, pp. 310–333. Print. doi:10.1017/s026021051500025x. 

Cruz, Giovanni Molano. “A View from the South: The Global Creation of the War on Drugs.” Contexto Internacional, vol. 39, no. 3, 2017, pp. 633–653. Print. doi:10.1590/s0102-8529.2017390300009. 

“Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Challenges and Limitations.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, -challenges-and-limitations. 

“Drug Decriminalisation in Portugal: Setting the Record Straight.” Transform Drug Policy Foundation, 21 May 2020,

Getchell, Michelle. “The Enduring Legacy of Reagan’s Drug War in Latin America.” War on the Rocks, 20 Dec. 2018,

Finnemore, Martha, and Kathryn Sikkink. “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change.” International Organization, vol. 52, no. 4, 1998, pp. 887–917., doi:10.1162/002081898550789. Print. 

Pearl, Betsy. “Ending the War on Drugs: By the Numbers.” Center for American Progress, rugs-numbers/. 

“Portugal’s Radical Drugs Policy Is Working. Why Hasn’t the World Copied It?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Dec. 2017, snt-the-world-copied-it. 

Greenwald, Glen. “Treating, Not Punishing.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 

Dufton, Emily. “The War on Drugs: How President Nixon Tied Addiction to Crime.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 25 Mar. 2012, diction-to-crime/254319/.

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