Portugal’s drug experiment leads the way for the rest of the world. Portugal is winning its war on drugs, leading the way for the rest of the world. Not as you would expect with harsher penalties for users, but by decriminalising cannabis and other drugs. Surprising for a country renowned for being conservative. So, what changed? After the Portuguese Colonial War (1961 to 1974) in Angola, the people of Portugal fell off the straight and narrow path. Soldiers returned home with drug addictions. And then the military staged a coup in 1974 in Lisbon to overthrow the dictatorship which ended 40 years of oppression. The country’s people embraced their new freedom and democracy.
Unemployment Increases Drug Use In PortugalAt the same time, Portugal’s African colonies claimed independence. They sent hundreds of thousands of Portuguese soldiers and bureaucrats back to Portugal. They arrived home unemployed bringing with them the drugs they used to numb the horrors of war. Drugs became a habit they could not kick once they came home.
Portuguese people had one of the worst drug addictionsDrug addiction spiralled out of control. By the 1990s the Portuguese people had one of the worst drug addictions ever in the world. One percent of Portugal’s population were heroin addicts. The government tightened up drug legislation arresting drug users and addicts. They threw them in jail. But the problem only grew. Tough anti-drug laws did nothing to fix the problem. As drug addiction grew, people were dying from drug overdoses and diseases like HIV and AIDs. It got to the point where everyone in Portugal knew someone addicted to drugs. They had to find a new way to help the people of their country.
A change in perspectiveSo how did the government perspective change? The conservatives wanted to eradicate drugs and the addicts cried out for more understanding. The government listened to the people introducing Decree 15/92 in 1993. This was the beginning of a change of a new attitude towards drugs in the country. It made a clear distinction between major drug trafficking and dealing and common possession and use. It put drugs into different categories and brought in crime prevention strategies and treatment orders. Under this law possession of any amount of drugs was still a criminal offence. Users received a minimum three-month jail sentence or had to pay a fine. Anyone caught with more than three days’ worth of drugs could find themselves in prison for up a year. First time users had suspended sentences but there were penalties for everyone else.
New law changed how people received punishmentIn 2001, Law 30/2000 replaced Decree 15/92 and the world started to take notice of Portugal and its decriminalisation of cannabis. Its purpose was not to stop cannabis use and it covered all drugs from weed to hard drugs. The new law changed how people received punishment and all drugs remained illegal. From July 2001, anyone found with a small amount of drugs for personal use (not more than 10 days’ worth of drugs) had their stash confiscated. And had their case turned over to the Commission. The Commission is an informal panel has a doctor, lawyer and social assistant on it. It meets with offenders to evaluate each individual’s situation. The aim is to treat their addiction and offer opportunities for rehabilitation. Commercial sale of all drugs was still a punishable offence. But the government decided to give their people what they wanted.
What changed in the lawsThe focus changed from clearing the streets of drugs and addicts to giving people the help and guidance they needed. This shifted the perception of drug addiction from being a criminal matter. It focused on the health issues involved instead. This helped Portuguese society, and the rest of the world, to see the difference between addiction and using drugs for recreation. There is a difference between someone who smokes pot every day and a hard-core addiction. Anyone caught with drugs in their faces a dissuasion panel rather than a court. So, a conversation is opened about an individual’s situation rather than sending them to jail. If someone is identified as a recreational user the system can suspend their case which now happens 80 to 85 percent of the time. This proves that most drug users just want to get high not become addicted.
Governments can learn much from PortugalOther world governments can learn much from Portugal. People caught more than once may receive a small fine or community service not jail time. This stops jails from becoming overcrowded with petty criminals. Reserving jail space for those committing serious crimes. In addition, drug users may have to see their family doctor for regular check-ups and guidance. No longer is there judgement made about drug users. There is now a fair system overseen by the government.
New freedom for recreational drug usersPortugal changed its approach to drugs under the leadership of its socialist Prime Minister Antonio Guterres who became United Nations secretary general in January 2017. Although the approach was a gamble they had to do something radical. The country faced a disastrous situation and the government felt it had nothing to lose if the changes did not work. The new Portuguese drug laws changed how the community viewed casual cannabis smokers and drug addicts. The police also changed their attitude. They no longer had to raid local drug hangouts and could concentrate on dealing with serious crime. This made recreational smokers more comfortable and able to freely contribute to their community. They could also enjoy an occasional joint in public without fear of major repercussions although smoking in public is not legal.
No more war on drugsThis shift from a war on drugs allows a focus on drug addicts. Where, at the time, 1 percent of Portugal’s population was drug addicted, it has now halved. And, the new attitude is working with a reduction in the rate of HIV infection from 1016 cases in 2001 to 56 in 2012. and, the number of people with AIDS fell from 568 to 38. After decriminalisation, deaths from overdoses fell from 80 in 2001 to 16 in 2012. A US comparison shows over 14,000 people overdosed from prescription opioids alone in 2014. Portugal’s current death rate from drugs is three in one million people. Five times lower than the rate in the European Union. No longer do people have to hide their addiction. They are free to seek the help they need. Portugal’s new drug model saves it millions of dollars in arrests and needing to look after so many people in jail. This frees up resources to spend on dealing with real crime. And, the world is watching this success.
How Portugal helps drug addictsPortugal’s drug laws recognise drug addicts as people with a problem who need help. Drug addicts get the help they need. Community support, medical attention, education and understanding. Community non-profit groups go to the people. They walk the streets daily talking to people in need on the streets. They listen to their stories and give them access to the help they need. While these people use drugs heavier than cannabis, heavy pot users can get help as well. The government also has methadone programs to help people with a heroin addiction. Although it does not solve the problem of addiction, it is less damaging than heroin. By removing the stigma of drugs and offering recovery programs, some addicts are even finding work.
Portugal’s drug experiment leads the way for the rest of the worldPortugal decriminalised drugs to remove the shame associated with drugs and to offer drug addicts help. Although it did this, it does not mean that anything goes. There are still rules that cannabis users need to follow if they want to smoke it as a recreational pastime. It is still illegal to grow even small amounts of pot and you cannot sell it either. This creates a black market in Portugal for people turn other countries for its supply. There is still work to do to decriminalise growing and selling cannabis. The most common form of cannabis in Portugal is hash. Getting your hands on pot in Portugal is not easy. You also need to be aware there is good and poor-quality product and the prices vary as they do anywhere else. It often comes down to who you know. But, once you buy it, it is generally accepted. You need to keep in mind that you cannot have more than 10 days’ supply if you do not want to get into more serious trouble. Weed is openly smoked at concerts and festivals, as well as in private homes. Portugal is also now a part of The Global Marijuana March which celebrates pot across the world
Decriminalisation of cannabis in Portugal and across the worldWhile Portugal has changed its drug policies it has also helped its people. Both addicts and recreational drug users have the resources and community support they need to have reasonable lives. People are not dying in droves from drug overdoses and infectious diseases as they once were. Even though the solution is not a miracle or perfect, Portugal’s solution is a model for countries across the world. Twenty years ago, both Portugal and America struggled with drugs. Both took action. Portugal took a gamble treating the problem as a medical one that today has paid off for the people of its country. America took a hard line. It cracked down on drug users by spending billions of dollars putting them in jail.
America’s war on drugsAll these years later it is plain for the world to see which solution worked. America’s drug policies are a complete failure with the death of Americans climbing from drug overdoses. The result is that United Nations and American policy makers are starting to change their minds. Canada legalise recreational cannabis later this year. And other countries allow cannabis for medical use. But, there is still a long way to go before there is acceptance of an open cannabis culture across the world.
Posted in General and tagged Portugal’s drug experiment leads the way for the rest of the world