Portugal’s Radical Drugs Policy is Working, So Why…

December 5, 2017

When the drugs came, they hit all at once. It was the 80s, and by the time one in 10 people had slipped into the depths of heroin use – bankers, university students, carpenters, socialites, miners – Portugal was in a state of panic.

Álvaro Pereira was working as a family doctor in Olhão in southern Portugal. “People were injecting themselves in the street, in public squares, in gardens,” he told me. “At that time, not a day passed when there wasn’t a robbery at a local business, or a mugging.”

The crisis began in the south. The 80s were a prosperous time in Olhão, a fishing town 31 miles west of the Spanish border. Coastal waters filled fishermen’s nets from the Gulf of Cádiz to Morocco, tourism was growing, and currency flowed throughout the southern Algarve region. But by the end of the decade, heroin began washing up on Olhão’s shores. Overnight, Pereira’s beloved slice of the Algarve coast became one of the drug capitals of Europe: one in every 100 Portuguese was battling a problematic heroin addiction at that time, but the number was even higher in the south. Headlines in the local press raised the alarm about overdose deaths and rising crime. The rate of HIV infection in Portugal became the highest in the European Union. Pereira recalled desperate patients and families beating a path to his door, terrified, bewildered, begging for help. “I got involved,” he said, “only because I was ignorant.”

In truth, there was a lot of ignorance back then. Forty years of authoritarian rule under the regime established by António Salazar in 1933 had suppressed education, weakened institutions and lowered the school-leaving age, in a strategy intended to keep the population docile. The country was closed to the outside world; people missed out on the experimentation and mind-expanding culture of the 1960s. When the regime ended abruptly in a military coup in 1974, Portugal was suddenly opened to new markets and influences. Under the old regime, Coca-Cola was banned and owning a cigarette lighter required a licence. When marijuana and then heroin began flooding in, the country was utterly unprepared.

Pereira tackled the growing wave of addiction the only way he knew how: one patient at a time. A student in her 20s who still lived with her parents might have her family involved in her recovery; a middle-aged man, estranged from his wife and living on the street, faced different risks and needed a different kind of support. Pereira improvised, calling on institutions and individuals in the community to lend a hand.

In 2001, nearly two decades into Pereira’s accidental specialisation in addiction, Portugal became the first country to decriminalise the possession and consumption of all illicit substances. Rather than being arrested, those caught with a personal supply might be given a warning, a small fine, or told to appear before a local commission – a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker – about treatment, harm reduction, and the support services that were available to them.

The opioid crisis soon stabilised, and the ensuing years saw dramatic drops in problematic drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates. HIV infection plummeted from an all-time high in 2000 of 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million in 2015. The data behind these changes has been studied and cited as evidence by harm-reduction movements around the globe. It’s misleading, however, to credit these positive results entirely to a change in law.

Portugal’s remarkable recovery, and the fact that it has held steady through several changes in government – including conservative leaders who would have preferred to return to the US-style war on drugs – could not have happened without an enormous cultural shift, and a change in how the country viewed drugs, addiction – and itself. In many ways, the law was merely a reflection of transformations that were already happening in clinics, in pharmacies and around kitchen tables across the country. The official policy of decriminalisation made it far easier for a broad range of services (health, psychiatry, employment, housing etc) that had been struggling to pool their resources and expertise, to work together more effectively to serve their communities.

The language began to shift, too. Those who had been referred to sneeringly as drogados (junkies) – became known more broadly, more sympathetically, and more accurately, as “people who use drugs” or “people with addiction disorders”. This, too, was crucial.

It is important to note that Portugal stabilised its opioid crisis, but it didn’t make it disappear. While drug-related death, incarceration and infection rates plummeted, the country still had to deal with the health complications of long-term problematic drug use. Diseases including hepatitis C, cirrhosis and liver cancer are a burden on a health system that is still struggling to recover from recession and cutbacks. In this way, Portugal’s story serves as a warning of challenges yet to come.

Despite enthusiastic international reactions to Portugal’s success, local harm-reduction advocates have been frustrated by what they see as stagnation and inaction since decriminalisation came into effect. They criticise the state for dragging its feet on establishing supervised injection sites and drug consumption facilities; for failing to make the anti-overdose medication naloxone more readily available; for not implementing needle-exchange programmes in prisons. Where, they ask, is the courageous spirit and bold leadership that pushed the country to decriminalise drugs in the first place?

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