Portugal's Innovative Drug Policies Face Austerity Threat

Portugal's Innovative Drug Policies Face Austerity Threat

At conferences and forums around the world, the Portugal model of drug policy is lauded by academics, politicians and service providers and highlighted as an example of effective policy-making.  Ten years after decriminalizing personal use and possession of drugs and moving drug policy from being a law enforcement issue to one of public health, the results have been dramatic.  The future of this policy now hangs in the balance due to austerity measures in Portugal.  Without proper funding, this internationally recognized model will be distorted or discontinued.

Since 2000, when these policies were implemented, Portugal has experienced a significant drop in new HIV infections (a growing concern in Europe and around the world) and drug-related deaths.  Under the decriminalization model, those found in possession of drugs receive effective treatment or are provided with social services that help them integrate back into their community.  This stands in sharp contrast to the majority of the world where once someone is found in possession, they are labeled an outcast from society and put in jail.

Various publications and studies have examined the Portugal model to test for effectiveness in combatting drug abuse, drug-related violence and decreasing the vulnerability of drug users.  It has been proven that Portugal’s progressive drug policy does not increase drug use—on the contrary, it has been shown that these realistic policies reduce consumption, addiction, recidivism rates and HIV infections.  In addition, Portuguese society has generally embraced the policy for its commitment to human rights and the changes in HIV and hepatitis A and B rates.

This model, which puts the onus of responsibility on doctors, social workers and researchers, rather than police officers, criminal court judges and the military, has shown dramatic results.   When someone is found possessing narcotic substances deemed for personal consumption (25 grams of cannabis, 5 grams of hashish, 2 grams of cocaine, 1 gram of heroin and 10 pills of LSD or ecstasy), it is filed under an administrative offense, rather than a criminal one.  Dissuasion Commissions, consisting of three people nominated by the Ministries of Health and Justice, then decide the sanction for the user based on their reason for using drugs, their background, drug usage and other relevant information.  This individualized approach to drug consumption has shown to have much more effective results than the usual option of imprisonment.

Although this progressive policy has proven to be effective, recent austerity measures have resulted in the closure of the Portuguese national Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction (IDT).  The IDT was the primary institution charged with treating drug dependent persons.  As noted in the recent Open Society Foundation blog post, drug users will need to access services and substitution treatment at regular clinics or hospitals—thus interfering with the so-far highly successful, individualized program.  This highlights the issue of which programs are first to go with austerity measures.  As we have witnessed in the United States and Europe, it is usually social programs and those that address the most marginalized populations—in this case, drug users.  It remains to be seen how Portugal will deal with this financial crisis while also balancing their harm reduction  strategies.

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