A decade ago Portugal took a radical new approach to illegal drugs by treating users as people with social problems rather than as criminals. Could it work in the UK?
Susannah is being treated in the physiotherapy unit of the Centro das Taipas, a vast, pink former mental institutution close to Lisbon’s airport, where she is having hot towels pressed on to her lower back. Built during the second world war, the wards of wing 21B are these days committed to the treatment of drug addiction.
Susannah is a long-term drug user and is intelligent but troubled. She first smoked cannabis at 13. At 17, she began taking heroin with the father of her children. Now 37, she has been dependent on drugs – mostly heroin – for almost two decades.
“I lived in Spain for a while,” she tells me. “And London for a year, working in the restaurants with a friend. I went there to try to get off drugs but ended up on crack.” These days, however, Susannah, who also suffers from a bipolar disorder, is one of the beneficiaries of Europe’s most tolerant drug regime. For in Portugal, where Susannah lives, drugs have not only been decriminalised for almost a decade, but users are treated as though they have a health and social problem. Addicts such as Susannah are helped by the law, not penalised and stigmatised by it.
In the midst of the recently resurgent debate in Britain about whether our drug laws are working – or require a major overhaul – the experience of Portugal has become a crucial piece of evidence in favour of a radical approach that has confounded the expectations of even its conservative critics, so much so that in the last month British officials have asked their Portuguese counterparts for advice, with the only caveat being that they avoid mentioning the word “decriminalise”.
It is, perhaps, an unnecessary sensitivity. For the reality is that, despite liberalising how it regards drug possession – now largely an administrative problem rather than a criminal offence – Portugal has not become a magnet for drug tourists like Amsterdam, as some had predicted.
British officials are not the only ones who have made the pilgrimage to Portugal in recent years – health specialists, officials and journalists from around the world have all made the journey to see what Portugal is doing right, even as their own countries are still struggling.
Nor has it seen its addict population markedly increase. Rather it has stabilised in a nation that, along with the UK and Luxembourg, once had the worst heroin problem in Europe. The Guardian
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