Drug Addiction: Medical Challenge vs. Criminal Justice Issue

The United States and Portugal, among many other countries worldwide, have struggled with how to solve the increasing problem of illicit drugs and drug addiction. In 2001, the U.S. and Portugal both took decisive action, but in complete opposite directions.

While the U.S. cracked down and spent billions to incarcerate drug users and dealers, Portugal went the experimental route; they decriminalized the use of all drugs and kickstarted a major public health campaign to tackle addiction. While Portugal was initially scolded around the world for their experiment, it is now hailed as a model and commonly referred to as the Portuguese model. More than 15 years later, Portugal’s approach looks to be helping them win the war on drugs by ending it altogether. The Health Ministry estimates 25,000 heroin users currently, down from 100,000 when the policy was first put in place. The number of Portuguese dying from overdoses has also plunged more than 85%, about one-fiftieth the latest number in the U.S.

Delegations from around the world are flying to Portugal to study their model. Nicholas Kristof, from the NY Times, also traveled to the country to talk to drug dealers, drug users, and public health experts; to learn about the model for a drug policy that is both compassionate and effective. Aside from decriminalizing drug use, there are a few key links to the public health efforts. One includes mobile vans that provide free methadone, an opioid substitute, to users on a daily basis to enable them to stabilize their lives and hold jobs. Another crucial piece of the initiative includes the outreach programs; psychologists will meet with users, encourage them to try to quit, and give them clean hypodermics to prevent the spread of AIDS. While these public health workers may not get all users to quit, they do help to prevent their deaths.

Portugal’s public health approach to drug use and users reflects an increasingly common view worldwide that addiction is a chronic disease requiring medical care, rather than a criminal act. While not a perfect or magical solution, the Portuguese model is saving lives and decreasing overall drug use. To learn more about Kristof’s observations, what the country’s drug dealers think, and how others can learn from Portugal’s model, visit here.