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Portugal assesses its softer approach to drug users

A year ago Lisbon decriminalized drug use. Views differ on whether the policy is effective.

By Sara B. MillerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 8, 2002


In the shadowy labyrinth of cobblestone streets around this port city's 12-century Sé cathedral, heroin addicts have long been selling drugs and shooting up.

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Police had hoped that the narcotics-infested neighborhood would change after Portugal's decision to decriminalize the use of all drugs. But a year after the sweeping initiative took effect, they say the scene, and their jobs, have changed little.

"There are no fewer people here today than a year ago," says one of three officers on the night shift, who asked that his name not be used since, officially, the police are in favor of decriminalization.

"The program has a good intention, but it isn't working. They go to rehabilitation and come right back. Or they are at rehabilitation by day and shooting up here at night."

Portugal, a main gateway for drugs entering Europe, has among the highest per capita rates of hard drug use in the European Union, with an estimated 80,000 heroin addicts in a population of 10 million. Decriminalizing drug consumption was intended to attack the problem at its source: With users given treatment and education instead of jail time, police could devote more time and resources to catching traffickers.

While an evaluation to be released later this month by the nation's Institute for Drugs and Drug Addiction points to some positive results over the past year, the frustrations, and the cost of the program, have some critics urging cutbacks.

The program is being watched by other countries in Western Europe, which has rejected the hard-line US approach and moved increasingly to lenient policies toward users.

Just last month, Britain, traditionally an anti-drug bastion, became the latest to follow the trend, announcing that private use of marijuana in small amounts will not result in jail time.

So far, Portugal has gone the furthest, decriminalizing the use – but not sale – of all drugs, from cannabis to cocaine. When users are caught, they are sent to one of the country's 18 newly created commissions staffed with social workers, legal advisers, and psychiatrists. The commission decides whether the user will be sent to a treatment program. Sanctions, such as revocation of passport or a fine for repeated offenses – typically about $150 – can also be imposed.

The commissions also try to inspire users to look inward for motivation to quit, asking them such questions as: Why do you use drugs? How do you think you could stop the need?

The commission in Porto, which has seen 1,032 users in its first year, according to its president, Eduarda Costa, is in the city's business district. It has the sleek feel of a public relations office, with hardwood floors, top-40 music in the background, and a casually dressed young staff. The hope is that these commissions will serve as a kinder, gentler path to prevention and treatment than the court system did.

According to the national drug institute evaluation, of the 6,000 users who were sent to the commissions in the past year, some 1,600 have undergone treatment at the Prevention and Treatment of Drug Addiction Service, the public rehabilitation center.

"One of the most important things Portugal has learned this year is the importance of dissuasion," says Elza Pais, the president of the government-run drug institute. "With the commissions, drug users are getting to treatment much faster."