Drug use — a public health issue
The low number of deaths in Portugal from drug overdose indicates that the decriminalization of drug use can dramatically reduce the number of these deaths. The reality behind the statistics is more complex however.
In 2001 Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs. The idea was that drug taking should be considered a public health issue and not a criminal one. 16 years on, this courageous liberal measure would appear to have brought uncontested benefits. Portugal now has an impressive 3 deaths from drug overdose for 1 million citizens, compared to a horrifying 44 for 1 million in the UK.
Cuts in social services are affecting support for drug users
As is often the case with statistics when it comes to drugs, this apparently flattering picture in fact masks a more sombre reality. Major cities, such as Lisbon and Porto, have a good network of clinics and social centres for drug users. These vital support services are currently being threatened by cuts, however, as austerity bites in cash-strapped Portugal. The Portuguese government is under close surveillance from the European Union financial authorities and faces a steep debt reduction challenge. In this context many “non-essential” social services are being squeezed.
A thriving parallel economy
With the minimum wage at a paltry 650 € a month and rents rising fast in Lisbon and Porto, life in Portugal’s main cities is certainly not a halcyon experience for all citizens.
Although overall unemployment has dropped to just above 10% from 15% in 2014, the rate for the 15 to 24 age group is still a depressing 26%. The domestic market for drugs is “buoyant” and there is also increasingly strong demand from the tourist tsunami that has recently been rolling into Portugal, partly attracted by accessible drugs and cheap alcohol.
With their futures apparently blocked, dealing in drugs can seem a hopeful option for some young Portuguese. At the very least it offers a more stimulating alternative to hanging around the social housing project. This activity feeds a thriving parallel economy, with many families to a certain extent dependent on income from the sale of drugs.
No thanks, I’ve already turned down your colleague
Walking through some historic downtown areas in Lisbon is sometimes no longer the enchanting stroll that you might have expected it to be. In fact it can quickly turn into a tedious game of dodge-the-drug-dealer, with tough looking types working solo or in pairs homing in on anyone who looks like they might have a few euros to invest. I have grey hair now, but don’t imagine that this deters the dealers! Maybe they think grey hair a sign of superior disposable income? As I weave down the street, trying to spot them before they spot me, I fix my rapturous gaze on a lofty architectural detail feigning total deafness when I see a dealer approaching.
The police seem to have decided to ignore the problem, perhaps because the existing legislative context does not provide them with a legal framework within which they can take sufficiently effective action. It is not unusual to be passed by a man throwing out a confident “hashish, coke?” and then to notice a couple of policemen standing within a truncheon’s distance consulting their cell phones.
Tsunamis eventually roll back again. Who knows, maybe one day the tourists will move on and the dealers will find a more constructive activity.