As world leaders meet to consider the future of global drug policy at UNGASS, the UN’s special session on drugs, they will look to Portugal as an example of what decriminalization can accomplish.
As diplomats gather at the United Nations in New York this week to consider the future of global drug policy, one Portuguese official, João Goulão, will likely command attention that far outstrips his country’s influence in practically any other area. That’s because 16 years ago, Portugal took a leap and decriminalized the possession of all drugs — everything from marijuana to heroin. By most measures, the move has paid off.
Today, Portuguese authorities don’t arrest anyone found holding what’s considered less than a 10-day supply of an illicit drug — a gram of heroin, ecstasy, or amphetamine, two grams of cocaine, or 25 grams of cannabis. Instead, drug offenders receive a citation and are ordered to appear before so- called “dissuasion panels” made up of legal, social, and psychological experts. Most cases are simply suspended. Individuals who repeatedly come before the panels may be prescribed treatment, ranging from motivational counseling to opiate substitution therapy.
“We had a lot of criticism at first,” recalled Goulão, a physician specializing in addiction treatment whose work led Portugal to reform its drug laws in 2000, and who is today its national drug coordinator. After decriminalizing, the first inquiries Portugal received from the International Narcotics Control Board — the quasi-judicial UN oversight body established by the UN drug convention system — were sharp and scolding.
“Now things have changed completely,” he went on. “We are pointed to as an example of best practices inside the spirit of the conventions.” Indeed, Werner Sipp, the new head of the board, said as much at the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna earlier this year.
When Portugal decided to decriminalize in 2000, many skeptics assumed that the number of users would skyrocket. That did not happen. With some exceptions, including a marginal increase among adolescents, drug use has fallen over the past 15 years and now ebbs and flows within overall trends in Europe. Portuguese officials estimate that by the late 1990s roughly one percent of Portugal’s population, around 100,000 people, were heroin users.
Today, “we estimate that we have 50,000, most of them under substitution treatment,” said Goulão before adding that he’s recently seen a small uptick in use of the drug, predominantly among former addicts that got clean. This reflects Portugal’s tenuous economic condition, he contends.
“People use drugs for one of two reasons — either to potentiate pleasures or relieve unpleasure — and the types of drugs and the type of people who use drugs carries a lot according to the conditions of life in the country,” he remarked.
Parallel harm reduction measures, such as needle exchanges and opioid substitution therapy using drugs like methadone and buprenorphine, he said, serve as a cushion to prevent the spread of communicable diseases and a rise in overdoses even if the number of users injecting heroin happens to increase for a period of time.
“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.”
Read full article here: Portugal’s Example: What Happened After It Decriminalized All Drugs, From Weed to Heroin | VICE News