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Radical drug reform reducing addiction in Portugal

Image by Olivia Schenker/ECAL

At the turn of the millennium, Portugal was experiencing the most terrible heroin pandemic in Europe. The country of 10 million people accounted for the worst figures related to drug use: 1% of the population was addicted to heroin, the rate of HIV infection was the highest in the European Union and deaths from overdoses were spiralling out of control. During the 80s and 90s, hundreds of users lined up for hours to buy drugs in the impoverished neighbourhood of Casal Ventoso, Lisbon, known as the "drug supermarket". At its height, over 6,000 addicts descended daily to the shanty town to buy and consume heroin in the open air until 1999, when the slum was cleared and its residents rehoused.

Today, the country is very different, as heroin use has fallen to a quarter of what it was in 2000. What’s more is that Portugal has seen a dramatic drop in HIV infections (from 104 new cases per million in 2000 to 4.2 in 2015), whilst the number of people dying from overdose has plummeted by more than 85%.

Despite using different methods to the rest of the world to tackle its drug abuse issue, Portugal is winning its war on drugs. In 2001, the country undertook an important experiment by becoming the first to decriminalise the possession and consumption of all illicit substances, including those considered "hard drugs", such as heroin and cocaine. Architected by public health expert João Goulão, the policy was introduced while Antonio Guterres, now Secretary-General of the United Nations, was the Portuguese Prime Minister.

Selling and distributing drugs are still considered criminal offenses, yet purchasing a small quantity is not considered a crime, but an administrative offense instead. Drug addiction is viewed as a medical disease that should be treated in the health system rather than punished by criminal justice. More importantly, to tackle addiction, Portugal has also launched a strong public health initiative that aims to discourage the use of narcotics. Every day, vans tour Lisbon's streets to provide users with methadone free of charge.

More than 15 years since the policy’s implementation, the country significantly outperforms those who continue to criminalise drug use, such as the UK, where the rate of overdose deaths is 45 per million, compared to just 3 in Portugal. This approach has converted Portugal's drug mortality rate to the lowest in Western Europe. Besides from improving statistics, the country’s radical drug policy has been praised for its humanistic rather than stigmatizing approach. Yet despite the international press’ regular praise of Portugal’s pioneering strategy in tackling its drug problem, few countries risk following it.

This article was originally published by fairplanet and is part of an ongoing content partnership between Screen Shot and fairplanet.

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