16 years ago, Portugal stepped out on a limb and chose to decriminalize the possession of all drugs. No matter what kind. From heroin to weed, it is no longer a crime to carry drugs on you anywhere in the confines of the country. Astonishing to most, but it looks as it just may have paid off
For individuals in Portugal, caught by authorities while in possession, as long as what they have on them is less than a 10-days supply, they will not get arrested. This can be a gram of heroin, or even ecstasy. Or 25 grams of weed. Or even two grams of cocaine. What happens instead is that those who have been caught are ordered to present themselves in front of “dissuasion panels.” These panels were created to help persuade the individuals caught into giving up their drug habit. Made up of legal, psychological, and social experts, the hope is that the individual will be lead into therapy, counseling, or other drug-rehab programs.
João Goulão, a physician whose work lead to a lot of the reforms, that then led to the drug law being put into place, does acknowledge that it’s been a hard road. Being part of the UN, Portugal came under fire form International Narcotics Control Board (an offshoot of the UN created to keep the “War on Drugs” in check). Thinking that it would completely ruin the nation, the UN was sure that it was the wrong choice. However, as time has gone on, it appears that the decision brought about a huge change for the positive.
Using their already established free public health system, Portugal has managed to create a different type of environment for drug users. Without the pressure of jail time, or the ever-probing eyes of the police, users who have turned into abusers may find themselves more willing to go into therapy. A holistic approach to the care of all of its people’s sets Portugal firmly apart from other nations who have only quasi-implemented drug reform laws.
Officials also estimate that the number of people who were using heroin has gone done significantly. This is quite a nice thing to hear, as opioid deaths took over 14,000 people in the United States in 2014. Cutting their numbers of potential users in half, Portugal is set to outrank all other nations in terms of non-drug using, healthy residents.
Goulão points to the country’s “parallel harm reduction measures” as the real reason why all of this has worked. These measures look like offering clean needle exchanges, and opioid substitution therapy. This therapy basically offers an incrementally reduced introduction of drugs into the system, so as to keep users from severe withdrawal symptoms, which makes most users return to their drugs.
“I think harm reduction is not giving up on people,” said Goulão. “I think it is respecting their timings and assuming that even if someone is still using drugs, that person deserves the investment of the state in order to have a better and longer life.”
This view could be looked upon as radical by some, but it has proven its efficacy in Portugal. Treating all people with dignity and respect, especially when facing drug-addiction, makes all the difference in the world. And with the energy being focused on recovery, instead of legal action, the police force can focus their attention elsewhere.
Even though individuals who are caught in possession of drugs aren’t sent to jail, drugs remain illegal in the country. Dealers and traffickers are still met with harsh penalties, and laws governing the distribution of drugs still follow the UN’s policies. Those policies, however, are also starting to change.
In 2016, a rewrite was put into place of the statutes that govern how, and why, people are arrested for drug possession. Although not entirely sweeping in scope, it did allow for individual countries to take more power back into their hands, and decide what their own laws would look like. This has lead to what we are currently seeing in the United States with marijuana.
Goulão is skeptical of that which is currently happening in the United States, as “Sometimes I feel the promoters of this discussion are mixing things together using a lack of intellectual seriousness.” His country’s focus has been mainly on repeat offenses for those who possessed marijuana, or hashish, so he speaks form a solid standpoint. Getting those who have been caught into the therapy they need does sometimes mean following up, however.
“If the person doesn’t show up at the doctor, we ask the police to personally hand them a notification so they know they are supposed to be in a specific place,” says Nuno Capaz, a sociologist who has served on the dissuasion panel. “The important part is to maintain the connection to the treatment system.”
This is a remarkable use of the police force, as it has focused attention on getting people into care, instead of custody. It has created a new face for the police force involved with drugs, and has seemingly allowed for more accessibility into the lives of those affected by drugs the most.
Capaz, speaking on decriminalization, went on to say this: “This small change actually makes a huge change in terms of police officers’ work. Of course every police officer knows where people hang out to smoke joints. If they wanted to they would just go there and pick up the same guy over and over. That doesn’t happen.”
In comparison to how most countries handle their drug problems, Portugal looks like a shining star. Not only officials in the government are coming into play, however. Non-profits are also leading the way with centers being operated under their purview that help provide clean needles, pipes, and support.
Over at GAT, an organization that is being founded by those living with HIV, they have drop-in centers where people are allowed to come and go as they please, while receiving free support. Ricardo Fuertes, the project coordinator, says “It’s very obvious that it’s a place for people who use drugs. It’s very open, but we don’t have complaints”, referring to the drop-in center. “The general population even comes to get tests done. I think it shows this isn’t a ghetto service.”
Unfortunately, cut backs have happened, especially as the nation faced economic crises after 2011. Restrictions on spending were tightened after a bailout from IMF, and the services offered to users have taken a hit. Only being able to plan a year in advance due to fund-regulations, makes it very difficult to plan for any sort of future. Users have also returned to their drugs during hard times, as job programs helping support them getting back into the work force has been one of the sectors hardest hit.
Luckily, Portugal has not experienced the same crisis as Greece did when their economy tanked. HIV cases sky rocketed as health programs were severely cut. With the “cushion effect” of services already in place, and the support of the police force, Portugal came out relatively unscathed.
“Usually the focus is on the decriminalization itself, but it worked because there were other services, and the coverage increased for needle replacement, detox, therapeutic communities, and employment options for people who use drugs,” said Fuertes. “It was the combination of the law and these services that made it a success. It’s very difficult to find people in Portugal who disagree with this model.”
Hopefully, this sort of program can continue into the future for Portugal, and can be looked upon by other nations as a model of what can happen. By taking a different approach, and acknowledging individuals as such, instead of criminals, we may all see a huge swing in how drugs are approached. With a little bit of love, and support, those in need can possibly find the help they so desperately seek.