Opinion: Why the Portuguese Method is the best way forward in the War Against Drugs.

A writing extract for ShadowWriters.ca by Rupert Gibson

A Methadone van providing a safe alternative for addicts in Lisbon. A file is kept for every citizen who comes to the Methadone program.
In 1971 the international war on drugs began with Nixon signing the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. The following year he proclaimed “Public Enemy no.1 in the United States is Drug abuse. In order to defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” Nixon’s initial budget started at $100 million annually. By 2015, the budget was up to $25 billion. So in its 40 years, what has the US’s War on Drugs achieved?

Some believe that the War on Drugs has stemmed the tide. John P. Walters, former Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said “To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven’t made any difference is ridiculous,”

However most would argue that the War on Drugs has by and large, not been a success story. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, between 2000–2015 alone, overdoses rose in America by more than 300%. Americans incarcerated for drug offences has also dramatically risen. Findings from the Sentencing Project show that between 1980 and 2014 Americans incarcerated for drug crimes has increased from 41,000 to 488,400 people, an increase of 1000%. To put it in the words of Gil Kerlikowske, Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “We’ve never worked the drug problem holistically. We’ll arrest the drug dealer, but we leave the addiction.”

In 2001, the U.S. doubled down on its War on Drugs. On the other side of the pond however, Portugal was taking a very different method.
That same year 1600 drug related HIV or AIDS cases were reported in Portugal. In 2012 these numbers were down to around 200. In 2001 80 people lost their lives to drug induced deaths. In 2012 this number fell to just below 20. One long term Lisbon addict described Casal Ventoso, Lisbon’s ground zero for heroin 15 years ago, as “a wall of death.”

One of Portugal’s leading public health experts and one of the architects in the change of policy said while thinking back to the situation in 2001 “We were facing a devastating situation, we had nothing to lose.” 15 years on and now Portugal has the lowest drug mortality rate in Western Europe. About a fiftieth of the U.S.’s current rate.

So, what exactly did Portugal do which had such a radical change? Simply put, addiction became an issue of health, not of criminal justice. There has been two main implementations to achieve this. Firstly, all drugs became decriminalised, including the heavy hitters such as cocaine and heroine. Secondly, a country wide increase on public spending in the health sector, especially around addiction treatment, was rapidly put into action. Now let’s be clear, drugs in Portugal are decriminalised, not legal. Dealers and traffickers still go to prison. However those found with amounts for personal use (approximately 10 days supply or less), are processed for an administrative offense, akin to receiving a traffic ticket or similar. Offenders are called to a ‘Dissuasion Commission”, here social workers encourage casual users into steering clear from addiction.

The Portuguese government switched to their health care approach under socialist prime minister, Antonio Guterres. Since then he has gone on to work with the UN and is the current secretary general. Both he and his party received a lot of international criticism while applying these radically different policies, both publically and behind closed doors. Many reproached the Portuguese government as a socialist weak point in the War Against Drugs.

Now however, the policy change is viewed in a very different light. Health care delegations have been coming from around the world to view what is now referred to as the “Portuguese Model”. The World Health Organization and American Public Health Association have both publically praised decriminalization and shifting focus instead to public health initiatives.

The change in policy has had other benefits as well. The increased social fabric has provided a safety net for citizens at risk of addiction. Less addicts and less people reliant on street dealers means more high risk citizens able to hold down a job and keep their lives together. This has had a notable steady boost to Portugal’s economy.

It is also much cheaper to treat the sick than to incarcerate them. The Portuguese Health Ministry spends less than $10 per person on their successful policy. The U.S. has spent some $10,000 per household. Over the decades that has totalled more than $1 trillion, a costly some.

All things totalled, from the numbers alone (at least to this author) it seems very clear that the Portuguese method is the only way forward. To me it seems clear that our children will look back at the War on Drugs as a drastically misguided decision; based on fear and a lack of understanding of the true impact addiction can cause on communities. It seems clear to me that as we learn to understand addiction and mental health in more clarity and with less stigma, we give our society’s vulnerable a better chance at recovery. We have long understood that you can not tell someone who suffers from diabetes or arthritis to ‘get over it’. I believe there is a time where this logic will be applied to those who suffer from mental illnesses such as addiction and clinical depression. This seems to be part of a widening global view. I for one hope we as a society can brave this conversation and follow the footsteps of our Portuguese brothers and sisters towards decriminalization and ultimately, better health care and prospects for ourselves and future generations.

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