Source: Guardian
Date: 20 July 2001

Portugal Decriminalizes Drug Use

Addicts Treated As Health And Social Problem

Portugal has forced back the frontiers of drug liberalisation in Europe with a law which, at a stroke, decriminalises the use of all previously banned narcotics, from cannabis to crack cocaine.

The new law, which came into effect on 1 July, takes a socially conservative country with traditional Catholic values far ahead of much of northern Europe, including Britain, in treating drug abuse as a social and health problem rather than a criminal one.

Vitalino Canas, the drug tsar appointed by the Socialist prime minister, Antonio Guterres, to steer the law into place, said yesterday that it made more sense to change the law than ignore it, as police forces do in Holland, parts of Swizerland, and now experimentally in the Brixton area of London.

"Why not be clear about this, and change the law to recognise that consuming drugs can be an illness or the route to illness?" he said.  "America has spent billions on enforcement but it has got nowhere.  We view drug users as people who need help and care."

He admitted that Mr Guterres was taking a risk, but said Portugal had no real choice.  The police had stopped arresting suspects and the courts were throwing out cases against users rather than apply legislation which sent them to prison for up to three years.

Margarida Costa, 35, a skeletal addict who has found a home at a drug treatment hostel, said prison had never helped her.  "In fact, I started taking drugs in jail," she said.  "You could get everything you wanted in there, every day."

Still emaciated from 10 years of heroin abuse and living rough, she is on methadone and preparing to return to living with her mother.

Out Of The Ghetto

She is lucky.  She has escaped from Casal Ventoso, Europe's worst drugs ghetto, where 800 or so addicts lived rough in tents or shacks of wood and corrugated iron.  Up to 5,000 more poured in daily to buy their heroin fix.  The government is now bulldozing the ghetto but hundreds of addicts still shoot up there at all hours.

Up to 100 at a time gather nearby in Maria Pia Street, blocking traffic as they wait for dealers, and are joined by smart couples in four-wheel-drive vehicles seeking their daily dose.

"I know of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and even a police officer, who are all secretly hooked on heroin," said Luis Patricio, the psychologist who led the campaign to treat Casal Ventoso as a public health problem.

Most countries had got the relationship between drugs, crime and jail the wrong way around, he said.

"Prison is a university of crime.  People learn violence there."

The rightwing opposition is predicting a catastrophic boom in drug consumption and the sudden arrival of thousands of hardened addicts and thrill-seekers from around Europe.

"We promise sun, beaches and any drug you like," Paulo Portas, leader of the Popular party, said.

But Mr Canas insisted that he was not turning Portugal into Europe's drug paradise.  "We are still fighting a war against drugs, but wars have their victims and the drug users are victims of the traffickers," he said.

The police, armed with new laws prescribing hefty prisons sentences and the confiscation of all money and property, have been ordered to turn their undivided attention to the drug mafias.

Decriminalising drugs is not the same as legalising them, Mr Canas pointed out.  In fact drug use can still be punished under the new law, but the responsibility has been shifted to independent drug dissuasion commissions, which can impose pounds 900 fines, order community service or detoxification programmes, and take away the jobs of those no longer fit to hold them.

"The courts just made things worse.  Here we will help them, but also watch over them," said Americo Gegaloto, the lawyer who heads the commission in Setubal, south of Lisbon.

Fines And Treatment

He and the two social workers who sit with him now decide what happens to drug users in a district covering the industrialised south bank of the Tagus.

The police still detain users and confiscate their drugs but, instead of locking them up or taking them to court they send their names and addresses to the commission.

In the Setubal commission's offices in the basement of a city centre block of flats, in a small room decorated with floral prints, they are questioned across what could be a dining room table and a decision on their future is taken.

It is the recreational drug users who are most likely to be fined.  Addicts will be sent to detoxification or other health programmes, if the pounds 175m budget for implementing the law allows.

Mr Gegaloto expects heroin users to take up much of his time.  But yesterday his only drug user was a boyish 19-year-old national serviceman called Paulo in sailor's uniform, sent by the military police, whose dogs sniffed out a lump of hash.

Paulo was all smiles and polite handshakes, thankful that he would have no criminal record but bewildered by the attention of so many people.

He was let off without a fine, but had to promise to give up joints and visit weekly.  His name will go on a confidential drug users register for five years.

At Casal Ventoso, Police Sergeant Henrique Pires was not so sure about the new law.  The presence of his squad of 10 men had simply pushed addicts 20 metres down the street.

Occasionally his unit's van is stoned or a bottle flies out from the rubble.  "It was better before," he grumbled.

Paulo Lima, a former Casal Ventoso resident now at a detoxification clinic, disagreed.  "There is no point arresting us.  But they should still take the drugs off people." : the birth of a new generation

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