Portugal assesses its softer approach to drug users

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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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."

When the initiative was passed last year, it drew criticism from conservative politicians and some members of the Roman Catholic church. Paulo Portas, former leader of the Popular Party and now the nation's defense minister, strongly condemned the law, concerned that it would turn the country into a haven for drug trafficking and drug tourism. Under the new program, trafficking is still a crime.

"There has been no indication that more traffickers have come to the country or that drug use or drug tourism is increasing," says Vitalino Canas, a member of parliament who directed the program last year as the secretary of state under the Socialist government. He says that it is still too early to assess the full impact of the program.

It is unclear whether the program will result in more trafficking arrests. Since the start of the program in July 2001, 1,892 people have been caught for trafficking, about the same number as were caught last year.

Still, at least with regard to drug users, the public has a new perception that something is being done, says Pais. "The sense of impunity has disappeared, since consumers, when caught by the police, are considered very rapidly by [the commissions]," she says. "Before, processes could take as long as two years to be taken to court. Nowadays, within four to five weeks a decision is taken."

When the new conservative government took office last spring, it threatened to abandon the program, says Danilo Ballotta, an expert at the European Union Monitoring Center for Drug and Drug Addiction in Lisbon. Instead, the program was moved under the health department to fit in line with the philosophy that drug users are patients, not criminals, and no major structural changes were made.

"It is very rare that a new government, of different colors, would take the same program and not change it. I think that shows it is working well and that the people are in favor of it," Ballotta says. "[The government] realized that it is the trend in Europe – new legislation that softens policies toward drug users, just like in Spain and Italy."

The government is considering cutting back the program, however.

Officials are studying the possibility of closing down some of the 18 commissions because, although Pais says that coordination between the police and the commissions is growing. not enough users are being sent to the commissions to keep them busy.

And other reductions may be on the way. "Treatment is controlled by outsources, and the problem is the cost," Ballotta says. "Whenever public money is cut, one of the first places it is cut from is health."

The decriminalization project is part of a comprehensive anti-drug campaign set to run until 2004, when a fuller assessment will be made. The campaign includes education and prevention programs in jails and in classrooms, from elementary school to college; media initiatives; and information programs in parent associations.

One of the major components is risk-reduction, including needle exchange programs, methadone centers, and street teams of health care workers who drive around drug-infested neighborhoods and distribute information along with clean needles.

According to the national drug institute's web site, public spending is to increase 10 percent per year until 2004, up to $1.53 billion.

The program is having an important impact on public opinion, according to the national drug institute's evaluation.

"We are experiencing a revolution of mentalities," says Pais, "which facilitates the social integration process so that drug users aren't marginalized."

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