Seventeen years ago, Portugal decriminalized the possession of a personal use amount of drugs. American activists in support of drug reform visited the country to find out how that was working out for the people there, and they had a hard time wrapping their heads around what they discovered.
FAILED DRUG WAR
Don’t mistake decriminalization with legalization. In Portugal, drugs are still illegal. Drug dealers caught with more than the amount deemed legal by the state still go to jail.
However, people who use drugs and get caught with small amounts, aren’t subjected to automatic minimum sentences in prison. Instead, they receive treatment. Well, they do if they need and want it, that is.
The Americans in attendance at the meetings in Portugal were as confused as you probably feel right now. For decades, the powers that be have told Americans that an all-out war on drugs and the people who use them is the only way to stop people from using.
Portugal proves that it is not.
They realized years ago that drug addicts are not criminals. Whether people are using drugs recreationally or are addicted to them, the lawmakers in Portugal recognized well over a decade ago that jail time is not the answer in either case.
PATIENTS, NOT CRIMINALS
So, what happens when they catch someone with drugs in Portugal?
When someone is caught with a personal amount of any drug in Portugal, they go in front of a three-member tribunal. The first thing they ask is if the person is a recreational user or an addict.
If the person is a recreational user, he or she may face a fine or serve some time to perform community service. If they are found to be an addict, a commission will recommend treatment, but will never make treatment a requirement.
Now and then, repeat offenders will be given sanctions for non-compliance. An example of a sanction would be a demand for an individual to present themselves to a hospital or a healthcare center for monitoring.
Yes, it’s that relaxed. Before you decide that sounds impossible, read on.
With a full 17 years under their belt, the people of Portugal can definitively say that it is indeed working. According to Phillip Smith for Alternet:
“Treating drug users like citizens who could possibly use some help instead of like criminals to be locked up is paying off by all the standard metrics – as well as by not replicating the thuggish and brutal American-style war on drugs, with all the deleterious and corrosive impacts that has on the communities particularly targeted for American drug law enforcement.
According to independent researchers, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and the Crime and the European Monitoring Center of Drugs and Drug Abuse, following is an overview of what Portugal accomplished with decriminalization:
- Drug use in the country is not on the rise. Indeed, the rate of people using drugs has not gone up. Rates either have not changed or in some cases, have actually dropped.
- Use amongst both teens and problematic users (addicts or those who inject drugs) has declined.
- Drug arrests rates and incarcerations have declined sharply. Unsurprisingly, drug arrest rates have plummeted by a whopping 60 percent. The percentage of people that are in jail for drug
- offenses has dropped from 44 percent to 24 percent. There has been no increase in the number of people sent before the drug commissions, either.
- More people than ever are receiving treatment because they want to, not by court order. In 2011, the number of people receiving treatment for addiction increased by 60 percent.
- Deaths related to drug overdoses have fallen. In 2001, 80 people died in Portugal as a result of an overdose. In 2012, that number shrank to 16.
- Drug injection-related infections like HIV and AIDS have plummeted. The number of new HIV cases fell from 1,600 to only 78 between 2001 and 2013.
What the system in Portugal has actually done, is remove the stigma from drug use. Instead of treating any citizen like they are sub-par merely because of what they put into their bodies, they started to treat them like human beings, and no one can deny that it is working.
They even allow parents to take their children into treatment with them in Portugal, proving that compassion works.
Since the United States is in more trouble surrounding drugs than ever before, it’s past time to start looking at things that are proven to work, instead of continuing to beat the same dead horse.
Featured Image Via Pixabay/Public Domain.