The Home Affairs Select Committee in the United Kingdom report on drug policy draws on lessons from Portugal’s decriminalisation of drug possession and puts forward a case for the UK reconsidering its own policies. Alex Stevens assesses the situation in Portugal, noting that while decriminalisation has coincided with a fall in the most problematic forms of drug use, it is not the only factor. (See also: Portugal: Ten Years After Decriminalization)
From the beginning of next year, the government will launch a new initiative in the struggle against drug-related deaths. In collaboration with far-left support party Enhedslisten (EL), the government has decided to set aside six million kroner for so-called ‘overdose kits’ that are intended to aid hard-core drug abusers. The kit will contain revival equipment and doses of the drug Naloxon, which is used to counter the effects of an opiate overdose.
There is no reliable evidence that tougher criminal sanctions deter drug use or offending. On the contrary, criminalisation worsens the health and wellbeing of drug users, increases risk behaviours, drives the spread of HIV, encourages other crime and discourages drug users from seeking treatment. A report by Australia21, Alternatives to Prohibition, subtitled Illicit drugs: how we can stop killing and criminalising young Australians, sets out the lessons learnt about the failed war on drugs from other countries, especially Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Portugal.
Portugal's famously liberal drug policy has been held up as a model for other countries - Norway is considering adopting parts of it and countries as far afield as Argentina have expressed interest. But experts warn that budget cuts and the threat of more cuts to come - combined with an increase in hard drug abuse - risk turning it into a shadow of its former self. "We have a certain responsibility to maintain the essential despite the recession," said Joao Goulao, the national drugs agency chief. "Other countries do look at us and seek our expertise."
Portugal’s anti-drug policies have been gaining international visibility since this country's 2001 decision to eliminate all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs. Decriminalisation of drug consumption, still opposed by political sectors like the right, was made possible by “favourable public opinion…it arose from society,” where virtually every family had a member or friend with a drug abuse problem, says João Goulão president of this country’s Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction.
Canada must embrace a public health approach to drug addiction rather than treating it as a criminal justice issue in order to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS among drug users, says a Canadian adviser for a new global report. The report, The War on Drugs and HIV/AIDS - How the Criminalization of Drug Use Fuels the Global Pandemic, released by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, condemned the worldwide war on drugs as a "remarkable failure" and claimed it is driving the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS among drug users and their sexual partners.
Several top public health officials are proposing a rethinking of current illegal-drug policies they assert spurs on a global problem involving ecstasy, one that even the White House says is made in Canada, specifically B.C. But the suggestion for dialogue about a careful, science-based crafting of new health-oriented regulations comes at the same time the federal government has taken the polar opposite course with its omnibus crime bill. In mid-March, the class of drugs that includes the substance MDMA — considered the pure and original form of ecstasy — was bumped up to a Schedule I drug under Bill C-10, giving it heightened status alongside heroin and cocaine.
In the year 2000, as the president of Poland, I signed one of Europe’s most conservative laws on drug possession. Any amount of illicit substances a person possessed meant they were eligible for up to three years in prison. Our hope was that this would help to liberate Poland, and especially its youths, from drugs that not only have a potential to ruin the lives of the people who abuse them but also have been propelling the spread of HIV among people who inject them. We were mistaken on both of our assumptions.
An alliance of influential charities has condemned a key government drugs strategy document, calling it an "ideological attack" on proven addiction treatments and "dangerously and deeply flawed". It warns that ministers will be putting lives at risk if proposed plans to push through "abstinence-based" approaches go ahead.
President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador denied that his government had rewarded his country's two largest street gangs for striking a truce credited with a dramatic drop in the staggering national homicide rate. Funes said his administration had not negotiated with the gangsters. He did say that the government responded to news of the truce by transferring 30 gang leaders to lower-security jails so they could order their underlings to stop attacking each other.
An approach known as drug-market intervention (DMI) was first used in High Point, North Carolina, in 2004 and since then has been tried in more than 30 cities and counties. It is the brainchild of David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College in New York, who thinks that “the most troubled communities can survive the public-health and family issues that come with even the highest levels of addiction. They can’t survive the community impact that comes with overt drug markets”—by which he means markets that draw outsiders to the neighbourhood. Once these are entrenched, a range of problems follow: not just drug use and sales, but open prostitution, muggings, robberies, declining property values, and the loss of businesses and safe public spaces.
The Platzspitz or “Needle Park” in Zürich was one of the world’s most notorious open drug scenes, attracting users from all over Europe. After its closure, a new drugs policy was introduced in Switzerland to better protect drug addicts. Dr André Seidenberg was a pioneer of this approach. Swiss TV took him back to the Needle Park, along with a heroin addict who was heavily involved in the scene at that time. (See also: Ten years of heroin handouts fixes drug crime, Swissinfo, January 24, 2004)
The loudest voices in US drug policy debates call either for enforcing prohibition with ever-increasing ferocity or for giving up altogether by letting corporations legally sell the currently illicit drugs much as they do tobacco and alcohol. But as our colleagues and we detail this week in the Lancet, there is an alternative: adopting drug policies with scientific evidence of effectiveness. Regardless of what goals for drug policy emerge from the democratic process, everyone wants the policies implemented in the service of those goals to be effective.