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Portugal Decriminalized Drugs and Drastically Reduced Drug Use; Why Hasn’t the U.S. and the World Followed?

Following a revolution that saw the end of a 40-year oppressive regime, Portugal experienced an “explosion of freedom” throughout the 70s and 80s. An unfortunate side effect of that freedom was an increased exposure to drugs. By the 1990s, one percent of Portugal’s population was addicted to heroin, one of the worst drug epidemics in the world.

“Suddenly everything was different [after the revolution]. Freedom! And drugs were something that came with that freedom. But we were completely naive,” Portugal’s drug czar João Goulão recently told NPR. “Every family had its own drug addict. It was so, so present in everyday life that it turned public opinion.”

The shift in public opinion helped to usher in a new way to handle and treat drug abuse, with the passage of the 2001 decriminalization law that shifted the focus from treating it as a crime to labeling it as a health issue.

“We are dealing with a chronic relapsing disease, and this is a disease like any other,” said Goulão. “I do not put a diabetic in jail, for instance.”

Under the law, drug dealers are still sent to prison, but those caught with less than a 10-day supply of any drug – including heroin – are referred to government sociologists and often sent to drug treatment centers, not jail.

Sociologist Nuno Capaz and a team of 10 counselors handle all of Lisbon, Portugal’s approximately 2,500 drug cases per year. If that sounds like a lot, consider that’s a 75 percent reduction from the 1990s. In that same time, Portugal’s drug-induced death rate has dropped to five times lower than the EU average, and drug-related HIV infections have dropped 95 percent.

“It’s cheaper to treat people than to incarcerate them,” said Capaz. “If I come across someone who wants my help, I’m in a much better position to provide it than a judge would ever be. Simple as that.”

Seeing such results, it begs the question: Why haven’t the U.S. and other European countries tried to tackle drug abuse in a similar way?

Similar to Portugal in the 70s and 80s, the U.S. is experiencing a widespread and dangerous opioid epidemic that’s only recently begun to gain national attention. But many see shifts in new drug policy as a sign of changing attitudes toward how best to deal with this problem.

As of January 1, 2018, it became legal to smoke marijuana in nine states and use medical marijuana in 29 states. And polling also shows that support for the drug is steadily growing, with around 65 percent of Americans in favor of legalization. Of course, marijuana and heroin are two very different drugs, not to mention the wide gap between legalization and decriminalizing.

In recent years, the Justice Department had started to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, but under the Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reversed course and is again seeking to toughen drug laws akin to the 1980s’ “War on Drugs,” which many view as a failed approach to the problem.

Critics of Sessions’ approach say the reversal in policy will only continue to stuff already overcrowded prisons with nonviolent drug users, which some say turn casual drug users into more hardened criminals, as well as push back on individual states being able to enact their own approach to the problem. Other critics point to the outsized political influence the private prison industry has on pushing against legal marijuana.

But even the more liberal-minded Portugal hasn’t crossed the line into legalizing marijuana, and even Goulão claims the time isn’t right yet. Still, at least looking at how Portugal curtailed its drug epidemic and experimenting with similar methods could be the start (or solution) to a growing problem that many Americans face across the country.

At the rate America is going, it may not be long before we too say, “Every family has its own drug addict.”