Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Drug use decriminalised deemed a success

It is perhaps churlish to bring up the subject in this season of raised glasses and toasts to mutual health and happiness, but Portugal is currently ranked eighth in the world in per capita alcohol consumption. This is placing a heavy economic burden on the country's health service.
Let's side-step this observation by the World Health Organisation for the time being and look on the bright side. As we approach a new year, it is interesting to be reminded of Portugal's winning ways in the field of drug abuse.
A report on the subject from the Associated Press news agency suggests that the United States, Australia, Peru, Norway and Denmark are now showing great interest in the success of Portugal's drug law reform.
In the year 2000, drug abuse was recognised in Portugal as a public health problem rather than a criminal one. The following year, parliament took the courageous step of decriminalising all illegal drugs, everything from hashish to heroin.
There are limits to this liberal programme. Possession of such drugs remains illegal, but instead of being bundled off to criminal courts and prisons, re-offending consumers are obliged to attend counselling sessions and, if necessary, undergo appropriate treatment.
Possession of up to 10 daily doses for personal use is regarded as an offence but not a criminal one. A dose is defined for each drug by weight. Possession of more than 10 doses is considered dealing, which is still very much a crime.
Anyone caught with even a small amount of illegal drugs is automatically required to face a so-called Commission of Dissuasion. They may be let off with a warning but repeated offences may result in fines, forfeiting driving licences, police station check-ins or mandatory treatment in special centres.
The panel of experts who originally recommended the new approach back in 2000 emphasised that there was no point in just changing the law in the hope that things would slowly change; it had to be a pro-active, integrated approach.
Portugal was the first country in Europe to decriminalise drugs. The reform meant that Portugal had a more liberal approach than the Netherlands. Fears were expressed that it might backfire and produce an upsurge in drug abuse. That hasn't happened. Figures for 2001 to 2008 show the number of regular users remained much the same at less than three percent of the population for marijuana, and less than 0.3 percent for heroin and cocaine.
The number of people receiving treatment in this period rose by 20 percent. Drug-related court cases dropped by 66 percent. Drug-related HIV cases due to sharing dirty needles plummeted by 75 percent. In 2002, 49 percent of people with AIDS were addicts; by 2008 that was down to 28 percent.
There were concerns, too, both internally and in other countries, especially nearby Spain and France, that Portugal would become a tourist haven for junkies. That hasn't happened either. Apparently there has been no noticeable increase in the number of foreign visitors caught with drugs.
Official figures are not yet available, but changing the system to place the focus on health rather than crime may not have cost the country anything in monetary terms. Expenditure has been transferred from the justice department to the health services.
The system is far from perfect, however. Cannabis use is still commonplace among teenagers and young adults - and spliffs nowadays are far stronger than the joints of yesteryear. Critics say decriminalisation is too soft, that abusers take advantage of the system.
But Portugal's innovative approach seems to be catching on internationally. “Now, the United States, which has waged a 40-year, $1 trillion war on drugs, is looking for answers in tiny Portugal, which is reaping the benefits of what once looked like a dangerous gamble,” according to an Associated Press report from Lisbon at the weekend. The report, by Barry Hatton and Martha Mendoza, was part of an AP occasional series examining the US's 'War on Drugs'.
“The Obama administration firmly opposes the legalization of drugs, saying it would increase access and promote acceptance, according to drug czar Gil Kerlikowske. The U.S. is spending $74 billion this year on criminal and court proceedings for drug offenders, compared with $3.6 billion for treatment.
“But even the U.S. has taken small steps toward Portugal's approach of more intervention and treatment programs, and Kerlikowske has called for an end to the 'War on Drugs' rhetoric,” said the report.
Kerlikowske, who visited Portugal in September to learn about the drug reforms here, was quoted as saying that “calling it a war really limits your resources. Looking at this as both a public safety problem and a public health problem seems to make a lot more sense.”
The drug problem in America is massive. It has the highest rates of marijuana and cocaine use in the world. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana. Officials there know there is no guarantee that Portugal's approach would work in the U.S., which has a population 311 million compared to Portugal's 10.6 million.
But Portugal seems to have started a trend that other countries are cautiously following. An increasing number of American cities are now offering non-violent drug offenders a chance to choose treatment over jail, and the approach appears to be working.

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