Portugal ‘not a drug haven’
By BBC News – Wednesday, 18 July, 2001
Copyright: BBC News
The British Foreign Office is warning young tourists not to treat Portugal as a drug haven.
British Embassy officials in Lisbon have beefed up their travel advice following the recent introduction of a new law aimed at reducing Portugal’s 100,000 hard drug users.
The law has decriminalised all recreational drugs including heroin, crack, cocaine, ecstasy, and cannabis.
“It’s decriminalisation, not legalisation,” said Sandra Tyler Haywood, a spokeswoman for the British Embassy in Lisbon.
“But we are concerned that some people may see the new law as a licence for a free drug holiday.”
The embassy has already been taking calls from young Britons asking when they can come to Portugal to shoot up.
The police are particularly concerned that towns in the Algarve, which are magnets for travellers from Northern Europe, may become the new Mecca for techno party drugs like ecstasy.
The word on the street in Albufeira, the most popular destination for British package tourists, is that ecstasy is for sale in the main square.
The square is normally packed with families eating supper. But gypsies dressed in black peddle blocks of cannabis resin in amongst the stalls selling sweets and ice cream.
“Synthetics are a real worry,” says Chief Inspector Joao Figueira, of Portugal’s Drugs Intelligence Unit. “There is also a risk that the amount of heroin coming to Portugal could increase. Let’s hope not.”
Publicly at least, the Portuguese police support the government’s new radical stand, because they accept the argument that zero tolerance practiced by nations like Britain and America has failed to reduce drug dependency.
The socialist administration in Lisbon has pledged that never again will drug users go to jail.
A “consumer” caught with a 10 day supply of drugs will be forced to face a tribunal of social workers, doctors and psychologists.
Users of softer recreational substances will probably escape with a slap on the wrist.
Persistent offenders could face a fine of no more than £200, as well as other sanctions such as the loss of a drivers licence.
Ironically, the police have more work to do under the new law, because they are required to ensure that drug users obtain treatment and attend counselling sessions.
Critics fear the liberalisation – and the prospect of more paperwork – will encourage the police to simply turn even more of a blind eye than before.
Portugal’s ‘drug supermarket’
But there is strong support for the new legislation from the army of campaigners trying to clean up Casal Ventoso, a near derelict warren of shacks and squalid smack houses on one of Lisbon’s seven hills.
Casal Ventoso’s long main winding street – known as Portugal’s drugs supermarket – is lined with hundreds of addicts desperate to buy their next fix.
The place is a virtual no go area for police who, despite their new benevolent role, are regarded by the junkies as the enemy, because they scare off the dealers.
It is also avoided by most Portuguese, who are afraid of being mugged by addicts wielding Aids infected syringes.
Cipriani d’Olivera, who runs a special unit in charge of rebuilding Casal Ventoso and helping to wean the addicts off drugs, believes the government has taken the right path.
“If addicts are being treated with methadone [a heroin substitute], they will no longer need to rob people to raise the cash needed for the next fix,” he said.