As America grapples with a heroin epidemic, Portugal serves as an example of how to curb addiction to illicit drugs without relying on mass incarceration.
By systematically moving to decriminalize all drugs, from marijuana to heroin, Portugal has successfully reduced their addiction rate by roughly 50 percent. In Portugal, addiction is seen not as a crime to punish, but as a public health crisis that should be addressed holistically.
In 2001, addiction was so rampant in Portugal that roughly 0.7 percent of 10.36 million Portuguese citizens, or 72,530 people, had used heroin at least once. Other than England and Wales, Portugal was the most addicted nation in Europe. The government commissioned a panel of doctors, psychologists, lawyers, and activists to determine the best solution for tackling the addiction crisis. The panel recommended full decriminalization of every drug. 15 years later, the results are obvious — decriminalization works.
Now, Portugal doesn’t even arrest anyone carrying less than a ten-day supply of any drug. In Portugal, you can carry up to a gram of heroin, ecstasy, or methamphetamine, up to two grams of cocaine, and up to roughly an ounce of marijuana without risking arrest. If an addict is caught by Portuguese authorities with any illicit drugs on their person, they go before a three-person panel consisting of a doctor, a lawyer, and a psychologist. The panel then either prescribes treatment, sentences them to jail, or does nothing.
As the video below shows, Portugal’s move to decriminalize all drugs resulted in far fewer resources invested in incarceration, once the government stopped treating minor drug possession as a crime. In 1999, drug offenders made up almost half of Portugal’s prison population. But by 2012, that number was down to less than 21 percent.
How Portugal Ended its War on Drugs — Maybe this is something the US should look into.
However, it’s important to note that Portugal did more than merely decriminalize drugs. The government also implemented a significant agenda of social reforms aimed at rehabilitating former addicts back into society. Transform Drug Policy (TDP) — a UK-based think tank — determined that the Portuguese government’s social reforms helped keep the addiction rate and prison population down.
Portugal complemented its policy of decriminalisation by allocating greater resources across the drugs field, expanding and improving prevention, treatment, harm reduction and social reintegration programmes. The introduction of these measures coincided with an expansion of the Portuguese welfare state, which included a guaranteed minimum income. While decriminalisation played an important role, it is likely that the positive outcomes described below would not have been achieved without these wider health and social reforms.
Ricardo Fuertes, a project director at GAT — an addiction outreach organization founded by people with HIV — told VICE News that Portugal’s unique model of addressing drug addiction is a hit throughout the country.
“It was the combination of the law and these services that made it a success,” Fuertes said. “It’s very difficult to find people in Portugal who disagree with this model.”
In the meantime, addiction rates in the US continue to skyrocket while domestic drug policy continues to focus on incarceration over rehabilitation. As this chart from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows, the rate of heroin overdose deaths per 100,000 people in the US nearly tripled between 2010 and 2013:
As heroin-related deaths continue to rise, so does domestic spending on the War on Drugs. According to the Office of National Drug Control policy, federal and state governments have already spent a combined $26.4 billion this year on arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating non-violent drug offenders. Of the 1.5 million-plus people arrested for minor drug offenses in 2014, over 700,000 were arrested for marijuana-related crimes, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. That amounts to roughly one arrest every 45 seconds.
Portugal has set the standard the rest of the world should follow. In the 2016 elections, all federal, state, and local candidates should be asked how they’ll handle the addiction crisis running rampant across the US, and if they’re familiar with Portugal’s overwhelming success.
Zach Cartwright is an activist and author from Richmond, Virginia. He enjoys writing about politics, government, and the media. Send him an email: [email protected]