16 years after making a bold move to treat drug use as a medical issue rather than a criminal issue, Portugal is now experiencing one of the lowest rates of overdose in the EU second only to Romania.
"Portugal decriminalised the use of all drugs in 2001. Weed, cocaine, heroin, you name it — Portugal decided to treat possession and use of small quantities of these drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one. The drugs were still illegal, of course. But now getting caught with them meant a small fine and maybe a referral to a treatment program — not jail time and a criminal record," reports the UK based Independent.
When Portuguese citizens are caught with personal amounts of substances, the law treats these infractions as a health issue, rather than a criminal one.
According to Vice News "Today, Portuguese authorities don't arrest anyone found holding what's considered less than a 10-day supply of an illicit drug — a gram of heroin, ecstasy, or amphetamine, two grams of cocaine, or 25 grams of cannabis. Instead, drug offenders receive a citation and are ordered to appear before so- called "dissuasion panels" made up of legal, social, and psychological experts. Most cases are simply suspended. Individuals who repeatedly come before the panels may be prescribed treatment, ranging from motivational counseling to opiate substitution therapy."
Portugal's drug czar João Goulão has spearheaded the Portuguese initiative and told National Public Radio "Every family had its own drug addict. It was so, so present in everyday life, that it turned public opinion. We are dealing with a chronic relapsing disease, and this is a disease like any other. I do not put a diabetic in jail, for instance."
NPR went on to further exaplain that "Under the 2001 decriminalization law, authored by Goulão, drug dealers are still sent to prison. But anyone caught with less than a 10-day supply of any drug — including heroin — gets mandatory medical treatment. No judge, no courtroom, no jail."
Polls have shown that across the board, Portuguese citizens are in favour of, and support the approach that João Goulão has helped institute in their country and have embraced the country's policy that has brought overdose deaths to some of the lowest in the EU.
How Does BC Compare?
In terms that any Canadian familiar with the current opioid crisis can understand, the distance between Portugal's overdose rates, and those of British Columbia, are eye opening.
The province of BC with a population of 4.6 million is on track to top 1400 overdose deaths for 2017, which translates into 304 deaths per million population. Portugal's 6 deaths per million population for their entire country is based off of a population of 10.3 million, which is more than double the population of BC.
Canadian law makers are currently debating the issue of decriminalizing marijuana, which is one small part of a larger picture that Portugal is leading the way, and the world on.