When it comes to the war on drugs, the United States has faltered in recent years, so much so that drug czar Gil Kerlikowske has renounced our old term “War on Drugs” and is trying a more integrated approach. Portugal has also tried a new tactic in dealing with drug addiction. Their approach is one that was both bold and difficult, but one that seemed to have paid off. Other countries have taken note of Portugal’s success, including the United States. Gil Kerlikowske has met with Portuguese officials to talk about their drug reform strategies.
Ten years ago, Portugal had a big drug problem. 100,000 people, or about 1% of the population, were addicted to drugs. Portugal found itself in the never-ending cycle of arresting drug criminals, prosecuting them, and then after their sentence was complete finding them back on the streets again. It’s one of the main problems countries face when trying to end drug addiction and the crimes that so often are associated with it.
In 2000, Portugal passed a law that decriminalized the use of all illegal drugs. Drugs are still illegal in Portugal, but instead of throwing someone in possession of drugs to jail, it sends them to treatment or counseling. Portugal wrote it into law that anyone caught with illegal drugs will go directly to a “Dissuasion Committee” for counseling and further treatment if necessary.
It’s not a new concept, but it is one that is difficult to carry out. How does a government take the first step and say that citizens aren’t going to get in trouble if they are caught with illegal drugs? Fears in Portugal were that everyone would go out and try drugs, and that the country would become full of addicts who were getting away with their drug abuse. But that hasn’t happened. In the last 10 years, Portugal has seen drug-related court cases drop 66%, the number of drug abusers has remained the same, and the number of people receiving treatment rose 20%. Most importantly, some of the country’s worst neighborhoods, once plagued with drug addicts and crime, have become safe.
Some argue that policies like these are too soft on drug addicts, and without pressure and the threat of jail some people will never change. And in fact, countries that become lax when it comes to carrying out the law often see an increase in drug users. But countries like Portugal have seen success because they follow through with the treatment part of the plan. It works because they have changed the drug problem from a law enforcement issue to a public health issue which can be more openly managed.
Throwing a drug addict in jail does little good. We can expect 48% of drug-using criminals to get caught using drugs again. However, if we can get these people the help they need to live a life without drugs, we can change their lives for good.