Portugal Drug Wars


“life isn’t a drug”

‘Even the smallest country, can change the course of the future.’

The concept of punishment is different in every country. For a same crime, in the United States, a violator is given a mandatory sentence of 10 to 15 years. In Iran, an Islamic republic, the violators are hung publicly whereas in China, a single-party state government, the violators are shot with a bullet to the head or by lethal injection. In Russia, where prisons are ruthless, the violators are put in a “quarantine room” with merely bread and water to survive. Oh and like it wasn’t enough, they are handcuffed to their beds.

You would probably think that we are talking about a high profile terrorist, a mass-murderer or even the most dangerous man on earth. Oh no, not at all, we’re talking about drug traffickers. The ones that are sometimes forced to it because their families rely on that money for food, roof and water.

The War on Drugs is an endless war. While the amount of psychoactive substances do not substantially decrease, the list of victims never ends. Consumers and dealers are subject to the harshest forms of punishment. Country after country, drug trafficking is seen as an absolute crime, holding sometimes harsher punishments than for those who rape, murder or thief. The hype is such that the sale and consumption of drugs seems more dangerous than the equally lucrative business of arm trading and high-tech weaponry sale, which has the power to kill more people than drug use.

The prosecution of the drug war has killed hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world. Since Presidente Felipe Calderon took office in Mexico in 2006, over 50,000 Mexicans have died in drug war related violence. Seventy-five per cent of those murdered are under the age of 25.

Now I do not say we should stop the war on drugs and let the traffic continue. What I propose is a different approach. And of course, my proposition is not unfounded. It is based on what a country has been doing for at least ten years now and has shown very positive results. The example, I believe should be followed, comes from Portugal.

Portugal, a small country on the edge of Europe counting only 10 million people, opted out of the War on Drugs, the violence and the stunning brutality that always accompanies it. Instead it adopted a doctrine based on humanism and pragmatism. In 2000, all drug use was decriminalized including the so-called “hard drugs” such as heroin, methamphetamine and crack cocaine. This doesn’t mean they were legalized. You can still get caught for drug use and trafficking. But with the passage of Law 30/2000, drug use or possession is not deemed as a criminal offence but instead, an administrative one. The values of respect, choice and dignity are the foundation of the National Drug Strategy. This essential paradigm shift has altered the way Portuguese society treats those who use unlawful drugs. They believe in ‘antes tratar que punir’, better treat than punish. Drug consumers aren’t criminals to be demonized and imprisoned, but human beings who use drugs recreationally and should either be left alone, or should be offered help. In fact, putting people behind bars unarguably does not decrease drug traffic and only takes up space. Portuguese drug policy experts rightly believe that prison stigmatizes people, teaches criminals survival skills and makes social reintegration difficult.

Another revolutionary aspect of the Portuguese war on drugs is the fact that drug use is not seen as a criminal offense but more of a health issue. In order to fight the war on drugs, a new committee was made, the ‘Comissao Para A Dissuasao Da Toxicodependencia’ (CDT), -Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction.- Now the importance of this committee is that it is not accountable to the ministry of justice but to the ministry of health once again breaking the stereotypical representation of the drug user as a criminal offender. The team can recommend the complete suspension of the administrative offence or drug treatment, community service and weekly attendance at a health centre or sanctions like restrictions on travel, the banning from designated places or a fine. The person has the right to refuse the recommendations, but according to CDT members, that rarely happens.

As a result of this campaign, drug use among adolescents decreased although there has been a small spike in drug use among adults although it is important to note that marijuana is the drug most involved in administrative sanctions each year. As we all know marijuana is the safest drug and its effects have been thoroughly studied, it causes little to no harm to users – as compared to alcohol, which is legal and poses well-documented health risks, evidence that more addictive drugs have not gained popularity in Portugal despite their availability. This shows that the majority of people aren’t interested in injecting potent narcotics or stimulants into their veins and many of those who do, want treatment. According to the CDT, the overall numbers of drug users receiving treatment went up from 23,654 to 40,000 between 1998 and 2010. Drug-related overdose deaths have dropped, particularly among heroin users, and rates of HIV infection have decreased dramatically.
The Portuguese drug decriminalization and harm reduction model has been in place for a decade and is a proven success. It is a shining example to the world that the human values of dignity, respect and freedom can challenge and replace the inhumanity, incarceration and barbarity of the War on Drugs. Something the world should learn fast, if this madness is to end.

– Nasser Karmali



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