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Will Portugal Rethink Its Longtime Drug Decriminalization Move?

Portugal, in an experiment that inspired similar efforts elsewhere, decriminalized all drug use, including marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. However, police are now blaming a spike in the number of people who use drugs for a rise in crime. Police in Porto have increased patrols in drug-plagued neighborhoods. Given existing laws, there’s only so much they can do. Portugal became a model for progressive jurisdictions around the world embracing drug decriminalization, such as the state of Oregon/ Now there is talk of fatigue, reports the Washington Post. Police are less motivated to register people who misuse drugs and there are year-long waits for state-funded rehabilitation treatment even as the number of people seeking help has fallen dramatically. The return of visible urban drug use is leading the Porto mayor and others to ask an explosive question: Is it time to reconsider this country’s globally hailed drug model? “These days in Portugal, it is forbidden to smoke tobacco outside a school or a hospital. It is forbidden to advertise ice cream and sugar candies. And yet, it is allowed for [people] to be there, injecting drugs,” said Rui Moreira, Porto’s mayor. “We’ve normalized it.”

In 2001, Portugal threw out years of punishment-driven policies in favor of harm reduction by decriminalizing the consumption of all drugs for personal use, including the purchase and possession of 10-day supplies. Consumption remains technically against the law, but instead of jail, people who misuse drugs are registered by police and referred to “dissuasion commissions.” For the most troubled people, authorities can impose sanctions including fines, and recommend treatment. Attendance is voluntary. Other countries have moved to channel drug offenses out of the penal system too, but none in Europe institutionalized that route more than Portugal. Within a few years, HIV transmission rates via syringes, one of the biggest arguments for decriminalization, plummeted. From 2000 to 2008, prison populations fell by 16.5 percent. Overdose rates dropped as public funds flowed from jails to rehabilitation. Now, in the first substantial way since decriminalization passed, some Portuguese voices are calling for a rethink of a policy that was long a proud point of national consensus. Urban visibility of the drug problem is at its worst point in decades and the state-funded nongovernmental organizations that have largely taken over responding to the people with addiction seem less concerned with treatment than affirming that lifetime drug use should be seen as a human right.


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