Portuguese drug policy and the drug treatment system are not without challenges and problems. No system is perfect and operates within a constantly changing economic, social and political environment. Some of the CDTs have been understaffed and the wait for treatment has increased. The economic crisis has hit Portugal hard and the unemployment rate is 12 per cent. The right-wing government is pushing through austerity measures that would cut health and social services and staff. These cuts would have a direct and negative impact on the availability of drug treatment services.
Junior Health Minister Roisin Shortall, who is in charge of Ireland’s drugs strategy, said she had an "open mind" in relation to Portugal’s model. She said she was "particularly interested" in the country’s "yellow card" system, which warned users about their behaviour and tried to steer them away from drugs. Dr Joao Goulao, Portugal’s National Drugs Co-ordinator, said decriminalisation of drugs for personal use did not itself lead to benefits. "There is not a causal effect between decriminalisation and these results — it is due to a comprehensive response. But decriminalisation did not affect negatively the evaluation of the phenomenon."
In 2000, the Portuguese government responded to widespread public concern over drugs by rejecting a "war on drugs" approach and instead decriminalized drug possession and use. It further rebuffed convention by placing the responsibility for decreasing drug demand as well as managing dependence under the Ministry of Health, rather than the Ministry of Justice. With this, the official response toward drug dependent persons shifted from viewing them as criminals, to treating them as patients.
Health experts in Portugal say that Portugal's decision 10 years ago to decriminalise drug use and treat addicts rather than punishing them is an experiment that has worked. "There is no doubt that the phenomenon of addiction is in decline in Portugal," said Joao Goulao, President of the Institute of Drugs and Drugs Addiction. A report published by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) said Portugal had dealt with this issue "in a pragmatic and innovative way."
Maria Moreira, Brendan Hughes, Claudia Costa Storti, Frank Zobel
23 June 2011
This profile describes the national drug policy of Portugal, a policy that has attracted significant attention recently in the media and in policy debates. It considers national strategies and action plans, the legal context within which they operate and the public funds spent, or committed, to resource them. It also describes the political bodies and mechanisms set up to coordinate the response to the multi-faceted problem and the systems of evaluation that may help to improve future policy. The profile puts this information in context by outlining the size, wealth and economic situation of the country as a whole, as well as the historical development of the current policy.
In an online town hall session yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama suggested that, while he is not in favor of drug legalization, he does believe drugs ought to be treated as “more of a public health problem.” Obama went on to add: “On drugs, I think a lot of times we’ve been so focused on arrests, incarceration, interdiction, that we don’t spend as much time thinking about how do we shrink demand.” (See the video clip below for the president’s full remarks.)
Faced with both a public health crisis and a public relations disaster, Portugal’s elected officials took a bold step. They decided to decriminalize the possession of all illicit drugs — from marijuana to heroin — but continue to impose criminal sanctions on distribution and trafficking. The goal: easing the burden on the nation’s criminal justice system and improving the people’s overall health by treating addiction as an illness, not a crime.