Portugal drug decriminalizing works. When Portugal decriminalised all drugs, it faced worldwide criticism for its approach. Portuguese authorities no longer prosecute people for having less than what they consider to be a 10-day supply of any illegal drug. This includes a gram of heroin, amphetamines and ecstasy, 25 grams of cannabis or 2 grams of cocaine.
Portugal Drug Decriminalizing WorksThis does not mean they do not arrest and jail drug runners and sellers. Drug decriminalisation removed the stigma of using drugs. Instead, people with small amounts of drugs receive a citation to face a ‘dissuasion panel’. These panels have legal, psychological and social experts on them. They suspend most cases. But, can prescribe alternative treatments such as substitution therapy or motivational counselling if the same people keep appearing before them.
Portugal Drug Decriminalizing Hard Drugs WorksAnd, it has worked according to Portuguese official, João Goulão. A doctor specialising in treatments for addiction, Goulão’s work was a model for the Portuguese drug law reforms in 2000. The International Control Board, an oversight body formed by the United Nations drug convention system chastised Portugal for its drug approach. But, 17 years later, things have changed in Portugal. It attributes its success to its free health system and drug rehabilitation programs. The attitude is that by removing the stigma from using drugs, people more seek help. Many countries have introduced drug decriminalisation of some sort. Portugal’s holistic approach has had the most success. In the two years between 2010 and 2012, Portugal’s new HIV infections dropped to 56 from 1016. In the same period, death from drug overdoses declined from 80 to 16. By comparison, in the US more than 14000 people overdosed on prescription opioids alone. So, it raises the question in Western countries about whether their approach to drug users could be different. Today, Portugal’s death rate from drugs per 3 million people is more than five times lower that the European Union average of 17.3 percent.
Drug decriminalisation does not lead to more addictsAround 1 percent of Portugal’s population, or about 100,000 people, were heroin users in the late 1990s. When Portugal took a stand and decriminalised drugs, many believed it would only increase the problem. The opposite is the case. Drug use fell over the last 17 years and is well within European trends. An exception was where there was a marginal increase among young people. Goulão says that at least half (or 50,000 people) were in substitution therapy though there had been recently a slight increase where former addicts were using again. He said this probably reflected the economic conditions of the country. He said people used drugs to either get pleasure or to escape displeasure. And, the types of drugs people used was in line with the state of the economy.
Harm minimisation proven not so radicalThe idea of harm minimisation, which was thought radical thinking at the time, is working for Portugal. Programs such as needle exchanges and substitution therapy is not giving up on people, as people thought at the time. Goulão believes it shows respect for what people are going through. Everyone deserves community investment in them to help turn their lives around. Although Portugal’s approach is a major shift of perception, it still works within international law. Drug traffickers and dealers are still sent to jail, and it works with the UN’s drug convention system. Portugal challenged the idea that international treaties required countries to jail drug users as well as the dealers. Although it was heroin that was the big problem, it is mostly people caught with cannabis or hash who come before the panel these days. Around 80 percent of these are first time offenders. The law considers them recreational users and most have their cases suspended. Being caught repeatedly can earn you fines or community service. And, if you refuse treatment, you can find yourself ordered check in with your local doctor on a regular basis. This and other services are part of Portugal’s free health service. If you do not check in with your doctor, the police deliver a notification telling you where you should be.
Hard Drug Addicts No Longer Feel Ashamed to Seek HelpDecriminalisation changed the attitude of Portugal’s police towards users. This changed their relationship with drug users and helps them to stay linked into the healthcare system. While police know where people hang out to smoke a joint, for example, they do not harass the same people over and over again. Portugal drug decriminalizing works. It makes communities less violent and safer mostly because hard drug addicts no longer feel ashamed to seek help. Non-profit agencies working alongside government agencies provide Portugal’s people with a cohesive system. Its accessible, free healthcare system removes the stigma associated with drug problems allowing people to freely seek support.
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