Learning from Portugal’s drug dilemmas
By BBC News – Friday, 23 November, 2001
Copyright: BBC News
In Portugal, since July 1, the possession or use of any type of drugs – hard or soft – has no longer been a crime, although dealing remains a criminal offence.
Consuming drugs is still illegal, but anyone caught with up to 10 daily doses of any drug for their own use is not arrested, does not appear before a court, and cannot go to jail.
Instead they are taken to a police station where their details are noted and they are served a notice to attend a hearing at one of 18 specially created regional commissions.
From there they may be sent for treatment if they are addicted, they may be fined, or they may be let off with a warning.
Clinics and jails
Vitalino Canas, the cabinet office minister who steered the legislation through parliament and is now supervising its implementation, says he would not be surprised if other EU member states followed Portugal’s example.
“I think this system is one that is becoming more natural in Europe,” he said. “Most of us are more and more aware that the solution for drug users is not jail, but offering some other opportunity.
“Jail is not a clinic – it’s not the right place to solve drug addiction.”
Those involved in implementing the new system are pleased with the results, although they say it is too early to judge whether it will have a major impact on consumption.
“Instead of punishing an addict, we think he is a victim and we try to convince him and his family to opt for treatment,” says Elisabete Azevedo, chair of the drug commission in Faro, one of two for the Algarve region.
But opponents of the law say it sends all the wrong signals.
“The fact that this was considered a crime was very important as a deterrent for young people,” said Joao Cesar Neves, a university professor who was active in the campaign against the law.
“They knew it wasn’t acceptable. Now it is seen as normal.”
But for people who work with addicts, the main advantage of the new law is that addicts – whom they see as sick – are no longer treated as criminals just for feeding their habit.
“Sometimes in the past drug addicts went to jail because they were carrying a small amount of heroin for their own use,” said Dr. Alvaro Pereira, director of the support centre for drug addicts in Olhao, in the Algarve. “But they’re patients – they need this drug for their welfare.”
Since the law came in, there have even been cases of addicts giving themselves up to the police, after hearing about friends’ experience of the commission.
What has not materialised is “drug tourism” of the kind predicted by the law’s more vocal critics, who warned of foreigners flocking to Portugal to take advantage of the more liberal laws.
Government officials point out that anyone caught in possession of drugs would at the very least have their holiday ruined, as they could be required to appear before the commission repeatedly.
They would also be reported to the authorities back home, and if caught twice, almost certainly fined.
Even more seriously, any would-be drug tourist caught with more than the specified limits still runs the risk of going to jail.
The law is clear about limits above which possession is still a crime, with one daily dose being very tightly defined, according to drug experts.
There is also anecdotal evidence that the police are casting their net wider since the law came in.
Where officers might once have turned a blind eye to a student spliff or ecstasy use at a club, now they may pounce because they know that users will be dealt with the one of the new commissions, not the courts.
Senior police officers seem relaxed about the new law.
“Police officers are normally conservative,” says Jose Ferreira Leite, head of the crime squad’s anti-drugs unit.
“But there isn’t such a great gap between the law and previous practice.
“Before the law, there was only one person in jail in Portugal who was arrested for drug consumption rather than for a drug-related crime.”
Drug use in Portugal is below the EU average, but it has increased sharply in recent years.
That – plus the prevalence of health problems among injecting drug users in Portugal – was a major spur for the current experiment.
There is general agreement that these health problems got so bad because the drug problem was allowed to fester.
After neglecting it for so long, the government seems determined to forge ahead with an innovative approach, although it rejects outright liberalisation.
It has refused to set up so-called “shooting rooms” where addicts can inject under controlled conditions.
Although a recent law does provide for these, it is up to local authorities or voluntary organisations to create them.
The government’s critics say it is seeking to avoid the political fallout from shooting rooms, while gleaning the political benefits of being seen to do something about the issue.
Government officials counter that in all European countries that have tried this experiment, the implementation aspect was left to local authorities.