Portugal and the drug war

The decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal has been a success, but austerity measures may threaten drug treatment.

Drugs in Portugal
Portugal has decriminalised the posession of drugs which has significantly lowered the prison population [EPA]

Chicago, IL – The War on Drugs is a global war without end. The battle takes more prisoners than all conventional wars combined and yet the availability of psychoactive substances never significantly diminishes. Those who sell and consume illegal drugs are subject to some of the harshest punishments ever meted out to human beings. In country after country, the punishments for those who violate drugs laws are often more severe than those for rape or murder. Unrelenting, international drug war hysteria whipped up by drug warriors at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODCP) makes the sale and consumption of illegal drugs seem more dangerous than the legal and equally lucrative business of selling arms and high-tech weaponry that actually kill far more people.

In the United States, drug law violators are routinely given mandatory sentences of 10 to 25 years for possession of small amounts of drugs. There are currently 17 men serving life sentences for marijuana offences. Iran publicly executes drug traffickers by “suspension hanging”, and China kills hundreds of drug dealers with a bullet to the back of the head or by lethal injection. In Russia, drug treatment resembles prison. One programme, City Without Drugs, locks the drug addicted in a “quarantine room”. They are fed only bread, water and gruel. The programme used to handcuff people to their beds.

The prosecution of the drug war has killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. Since Felipe Calderon took office in Mexico in 2006, over 50,000 Mexicans have died in drug war related violence. Seventy-five per cent of those murdered are under the age of 25.

There is one country that has opted out of the War on Drugs and the violence and stunning brutality that always accompanies it: Portugal. In 2000, the Portuguese government decriminalised all drug use, including the so-called “dangerous drugs” like heroin, methamphetamine and crack cocaine. Decriminalisation is not legalisation, and the police can still arrest people for drug use and drug trafficking. But with the passage of Law 30/2000, drug use or possession is not deemed a criminal offence but instead, an administrative one. Portuguese drug policy experts confronted the fact that prison stigmatises people, teaches criminal survival skills and makes social reintegration difficult. And putting people behind bars didn’t decrease drug use.    

People are allowed to have up to 10 days-worth of any drug. Nuno Capaz, a sociologist in Lisbon, said, “We’re not in the business of handing out criminal records. The police aren’t stalking drug users to arrest them.” The Portuguese criminal justice system is no longer overcrowded with drug users. According to the Institute of Drug and Drug Dependence, the number of people arrested for criminal offences related to drugs plummeted from 14,000 to an average of 5,000-5,500 per year.

A new strategy for understanding the social determinants of drug use and addiction was developed based on the principles of humanism and pragmatism. The values of dignity, respect, choice and the guaranteed right to treatment is the bedrock of the National Drug Strategy. This fundamental paradigm shift has changed the way Portuguese society thinks about those who use illegal drugs. They believe that antes tratar que punir, it is better to treat than punish. Drug users aren’t criminals to be demonised and incarcerated, but human beings who use drugs recreationally and should be left alone, or have an addiction and should be offered help.

The pragmatism built into Portuguese drug policy eliminated the adoption of solutions and interventions based on unscientific, coercive, menacing drug war lies and hype. An unapologetic harm reduction approach is embedded at every level of the system, from the understanding of the causes of addiction (poverty, social isolation) to the variety of drug treatment options available (mobile methadone vans and non-12-step drug treatment.)

The most revolutionary aspect of Portuguese drug policy is the Comissao Para A Dissuasao Da Toxicodependencia (CDT), (Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction.) The commissions are composed of a multi-disciplinary team of social workers, psychologists and sociologists. The CDTs work under the Ministry of Health, not under the Ministry of Justice. It is another ideological shift that asserts drug use is a health problem, not a criminal matter that is most effectively addressed by mental health professionals. Judges, prosecutors and police have no role in the CDTs. A comprehensive evaluation is done in collaboration with the alleged drug user. The team can recommend the complete suspension of the administrative offence, drug treatment, community service and weekly attendance at a health centre or sanctions like restrictions on travel, the banning from designated places or a fine. The person has the right to refuse the recommendations, but according to CDT members, that rarely happens.

Before the Portuguese government was able to implement the National Drug Strategy in 2000, members of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) flew to Lisbon to dissuade them from decriminalising drugs. The INCB is an unaccountable cabal of drug war proponents who enforce prohibitionist drug policies around the world through the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. They argued Portugal would become a drug destination for tourists, drug use would explode among youth, and decriminalisation would “send the wrong message”.

Revolutionary policy

The doomsday drug drama portrayed by the INCB never happened. Portugal didn’t become Europe’s “Club Meth”, nor did rates of drug use significantly increase. In fact, drug use among adolescents decreased. There has been a small spike in drug use among adults. And, so what? Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in Portugal. It is one of the safest psychoactive substances known to humanity, its effects on the brain and body have been thoroughly studied, and smoking marijuana causes little to no harm to users – as compared to alcohol which is legal and poses well-documented health risks. Marijuana is the drug most involved in administrative sanctions each year, evidence that more addictive drugs have not gained in popularity in Portugal despite their availability. What decriminalisation shows is that the majority of people aren’t interested in injecting potent narcotics or stimulants into their veins and many of those who do want treatment.

Portuguese drug experts realised that a massive expansion of drug treatment had to accompany the decriminalisation of drug use. Those with an addiction needed free and easy access to clean syringes, opiate maintenance therapies like methadone and buprenorphine, to doctors for psychotropic medications to alleviate anxiety and depression, and to mental health counsellors for talk therapy. Portugal has a single-payer, national healthcare system, and medical care is available to everyone. The national health system made it simple to increase the capacity to treat drug users. Drug treatment is available on demand, and in some areas of the country, within one or two days. The overall numbers of drug users receiving treatment went up from 23,654 to 40,000 between 1998 and 2010. Drug-related overdose deaths have dropped, particularly among heroin users, and rates of HIV infection have decreased dramatically.

Portuguese drug policy and the drug treatment system are not without challenges and problems. No system is perfect and operates within a constantly changing economic, social and political environment. Some of the CDTs have been understaffed and the wait for treatment has increased. The economic crisis has hit Portugal hard and the unemployment rate is 12 per cent. The right-wing government is pushing through austerity measures that would cut health and social services and staff. These cuts would have a direct and negative impact on the availability of drug treatment services. The next logical steps for Portugal are to legalise and regulate all drugs, abandon all interdiction efforts and end all criminal prosecution of drug traffickers. Not only is it ethically the right thing to do, ending drug prohibition will save billions of Euros that can be funnelled back into an ailing economy.

The Portuguese drug decriminalisation and harm reduction model has been in place for a decade and is a proven success. It is a shining example to the world that the human values of dignity, respect and freedom can challenge and replace the inhumanity, incarceration and barbarity of the War on Drugs.

Helen Redmond is a US journalist, commentator, and drug and health policy analyst.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.