Is there a perfect model for how a government should treat dependency issues? The answer, of course, is no, but there are several countries that are coming close and receiving praise for reducing their national addiction totals. Portugal happens to be one of those examples and they were recently featured in a lengthy expose in The New York Times.
Decriminalization is a big part of Portugal’s approach. Since 2001, they have removed penalties for usage of substances like cocaine and heroin. It is important to point out that drug trafficking is still very much a crime there, as is selling illegal narcotics. But if you have a dependency and are caught with possession, you do not receive the same harsh jail sentences as you would in the United States.
An interesting trend that has happened in Portugal ties directly back to their decriminalization effort nine years ago. Since then, the number of citizens receiving treatment has shot up dramatically. UC Davis professor, Hannah Laqueur, conducted a study on the effects of Portugal’s recovery efforts and shared her thoughts with The Times.
“Most accounts of the Portugal experiment have focused on decriminalization, but decriminalization was part of a broader effort intended to encourage treatment,” she explained to the site. “Using government funds to treat people, instead of incarcerate them, can go a long way.”
Indeed, we all know that overcrowded prisons are a big concern in the U.S. They also eat up a lot of taxpayers’ money, with the need to feed and house more people convicted of drug offenses. The idea Portugal had, was to use the money they were saving from incarcerations and apply it towards government-funded recovery programs.
Since 2001, the Portuguese government has invested substantial funds into harm reduction and treatment services. The results has been a decline in national overdose deaths and infectious diseases tied to intravenous drug use (such as Hepatitis C and H.I.V.).
Comparatively, the New York Times reported that the United States accounts for roughly 72,000 overdose deaths a year. Portugal, on the other hand, reported less than 100.
Obviously, it would take a lot of effort for the United States to adopt a similar model to what we see in Portugal. But the fact that decriminalization has demonstrated real, tangible results there is encouraging. Our hope is that, at the very least, these kind of success stories continue to get amplified and (hopefully) exposed to U.S. legislators.