In 2001, Portugal held first place in Europe for deaths caused by overdosing. By 2016, it was already second to last
A protest rally against the government’s pursued harsh drug policy was held again recently in Tbilisi, outside the Georgian Parliament.
The rally was organized following the Tbilisi City Court’s 23 January ruling, which sentenced Giorgi Giorganashvili, an actor, to 8 years in prison for procurement and possession of particularly large amount of narcotic substances.
There are harsh laws for drug use in Georgia: on average, every third prisoner in Georgia is serving a sentence related to drugs. Despite the harshness of the law, authorities have been unable to solve the problem.
At the electronic music festival called ‘Gem Fest’, which was held in the Georgian resort town of Anaklia in summer 2017, a 22-year-old girl died after a drug overdose. Another 6 attendees ended up in comas and were hospitalized.
Official information put forward the idea that the victims had used the club drug GHB (a central nervous system depressant), the smallest dose of which can induce highs.
One part of Georgian society believes that the problem comes from the harsh legislation itself.
Supporters of decriminalizing drugs often use the example of Portugal, which effectively deals with drug abuse and addiction.
JAMNews looked into Portugal’s experience with drugs and tried to understand just why this country has become such an example for others.
In the beginning of the 2000s, one of the poorest countries in Europe was Portugal, and predictions for its future were not bright. The country was standing on the doorstep of a drug epidemic.
Portugal had the highest rates of drug addiction, HIV infection and AIDS patients in Europe. One percent of the country was addicted to heroine. Every year, Portugal, a country of 10 000 000, registered 2 000 more cases of HIV infection. The majority of the newly infected were cases of intravenous drug use.
Researchers claimed that the reason for the situation were the radical political and social changes that had taken place in Portugal since the revolution in 1974. The peaceful ‘Tulip Revolution’ wiped out the remains of the dictatorial regime of Antonio Salasar – but brought with it a number of other problems.
The country, formerly closed to the world, all of a sudden felt the breeze of freedom and became a part of the western world, where drugs were already well-known – And the Portuguese could now use these drugs. Moreover, the Portuguese began repatriating to the country, and brought back with them knowledge of drugs from abroad.
Soon, Lisbon became the entry gates to Europe for South American cocaine, Middle Eastern heroine and African hash.
Over the course of two decades, the Portuguese authorities fought against this ‘evil’ with traditional methods – harsh legislation, a zero-tolerance policy and long prison terms. But to no avail.
Politicians and experts fought over how to deal with the problem.
A commission was created to form a national strategy for the fight against drugs, which conducted far-reaching research into the issue across the country. It was namely on the recommendations of this commission that the authorities of Portugal made a revolutionary decision – they announced a war not against addicts themselves, but against drug addiction.
In July 2001, Portugal passed completely new laws on drugs and launched a series of special programs. The new approach implied that drug users and their problems were the prerogative of the health care system – not law enforcement agencies. At the center of this legislation was the addict himself – his interests, his care, his life and rights.
How does the legislation work in Portugal?
In Portugal today, possession of drugs is completely decriminalized as long as the drugs themselves belong namely to the user.
Decriminalization does not mean legalization – that is, you can’t buy heroine in a Portuguese pharmacy. But the police do not have the right to charge people with criminal offenses if drugs of up to a certain quantity are found on their person.
The police do not have the right to arrest a person on such grounds. However, their data is written down and information on the person is sent to a special commission. In Portugal, there are dozens of these commissions, and it is they who help decide the fate of the drug user – not the police.
After receiving information from the police, the administrative process turns to the commission. The commission is comprised of three people: a social worker, a psychologist and a lawyer. The specialists study the case in question, analyze it and decide just what kind of drug-addict they are dealing with; what kind of help he or she might need, in addition to rehab options and psychological aid.
After studying the case, the commission can take any number of decisions:
– to fine the person 25 – 150 euros;
– prohibit him or her from occupying positions that are responsible for the lives of others;
– prohibit them from visiting night clubs;
– prohibit them from leaving the country;
– prohibit them from carrying weapons;
– confiscate their personal supply of drugs;
– deny him or her governmental handouts if they are using them.
The commission is not innocuous. But it is important to note that the commission takes special measures only in certain extenuating circumstances, and justifies its positions with clarity and transparency.
t is only thus that the commission is able to obtain its main goal. And this goal does not consist of punishing people, but rather to help them free themselves from their narcotic addiction.
But it is not only the liberal legislation that makes for the basis of the Portuguese model. In the beginning of the 2000s, the State opened rehabilitation centers. There are hundreds of them in Portugal today. There, drug-addicted individuals go through courses of detoxification and rehabilitation. This is all financed by the government.
There are other programs in Portugal that treat drug addicts with methadone and buprenorphine. Three programs of reintegration host trainings with the participation of former drug addicts and help those recovering to find work and a place to live.
Thousands of pharmacies across the whole country accept used syringes and provide drug users with clean ones, in addition to condoms, cotton swabs, rubbing alcohol and information brochures about rehabilitation centers.
Such kits are even given out on the street in Portugal. This is done in order to prevent drug users from acquiring diseases by injecting themselves with previously-used syringes.
Much work is done in Portugal to warn people of the potential affects of drug use. Prevention of drug use is part of the school curriculum. The main goal is to inform adolescents: students go through trainings, find out about the harm of drugs and psychotropic substances.
This is all financed by the state budget.
How was one of the poorest nations of Europe able to accomplish this?
Simply: they minimized spending on the criminal persecution of drug users (police, courts, correctional facilities) and the freed-up money was sent into the healthcare system, including rehabilitation and special programs.
What results has Portugal achieved thanks to these initiatives?
The new legislation did not turn Portugal into a safe haven for drug users from all over the world. Instead, the extent and size of the country’s drug problem was significantly decreased.
Here are a few numbers:
In 2001, there were 1 000 new registered cases of HIV. In 2012, only 56. In 2001, there were 80 deaths from overdosing. In 2012, that number was down to 16.
In 2001, there were 14 000 criminal cases opened related to drug crime. By 2012, that number had gone down to 6 000.
According to information from the European Center of Narcotics and Drug Users Monitoring, today Portugal has the second lowest indicators for death by overdose, topped only by Romania.
After the decriminalization, the rate at which drugs were spreading dramatically decreased in all age-groups. The biggest accomplishment was the fact that in the 15 – 24-year-old age range, the number of drug users diminishes year on year.
It was not easy to pass such a revolutionary legislation. The reformers had many opponents in various power structures, but ultimately everyone agreed that repressive and draconian drug laws had not justified themselves, and that it was necessary to change something.
Today, 16 years later, not one Portuguese politician will say on his platform that the more liberal approach was a mistake, and that the nation should consider returning to the former, harsher drug policies.
But it’s clear that Portugal has not entirely conquered drug addiction in the country. Not one country on the face of the earth has been been able to achieve such a feat. The fight continues on in Portugal, but the situation has improved overall, and the authorities are constantly checking in on the situation.
Portugal in international ratings
In the Global Commission on Drug Policy report for 2016, Portugal is portrayed as an example worthy of imitation.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy is a group of independent experts who publish reports about global tendencies since 2011. The commission is comprised of heavy-weight experts, including Kofi Annan, Xavier Solan and Nobel laureate and write Mario Vargas Llosa (The entire list of experts and the report for 2016 can be found here).
The report is called ‘Towards a reform of drug policy: a new approach towards decriminalization‘. It’s main recommendation to world leaders is to forego harsh drug policies and to take steps towards decriminalizing drugs.
Experts of the committee use the following numbers to justify their position:
In 2003, 185 million people (4.7 percent of the world population) between the ages of 15 – 63 admitted that in the past 12 months they had on at least one occasion used drugs.
In 2014, these numbers increased by 33 percent, in other words, 247 million people, or 5.2 percent of the world’s population.
The number of those who regularly use drugs also grew: in 2003, there were 27 million of them, whereas in 2014 their numbers stood at 29 million.
“It’s great that a number of factors affect the increase and decrease in the quantity of drug users. But it is also absolutely clear that draconian measures are not effective [either]. Moreover, [such laws] have heavy medical and social repercussions. Every year, a number of human rights violations are committed under the pretext of drug control, starting from the death penalty and ending with inhumane forced methods of caring [for those suffering from drug addiction],” the report says.
ne member of this commission, the former General Secretary of the UN, after presenting the report in an interview with ‘Spiegel’, said that humanity had lost the fight with drugs, and a world without drugs was but an illusion. For that reason, he said, one must act based on the reality in front of us:
“I will repeat what has been proven: drugs have destroyed the health and lives of many people, but an incorrect policy of the state has destroyed even more lives,” says Kofi Annan.
Doctor Joao Zhulao is one of the architects of the decriminalization program.
“What happened in Portugal was made possible only thanks to the unity of various factors,” he says. “We changed the paradigm: we deprived law enforcement agencies of their function of persecuting drug users, and we took this money and gave it to the healthcare system. And it is now this healthcare system that looks after drug users. Moreover, beyond any doubt, another and decisive fact was that we took away the stigma from drug use and gave them [drug users] the possibility of openly speaking about their problems and to openly ask for help in rehabilitation centers.”