DECRIMINALISATION of drug use in Portugal has not made the country a “paradise” for users or resulted in more children taking drugs, according to the country’s drugs chief.
Dr Joao Goulao said the policy was part of a comprehensive strategy which has led to reduced drug consumption among adolescents, falling heroin use and a reduced burden on the criminal justice system.
Junior Health Minister Roisin Shortall, who is in charge of Ireland’s drugs strategy, said she had an “open mind” in relation to Portugal’s model. She said she was “particularly interested” in the country’s “yellow card” system, which warned users about their behaviour and tried to steer them away from drugs.
Dr Goulao, the country’s National Drugs Co-ordinator, said decriminalisation of drugs for personal use did not itself lead to benefits.
“There is not a causal effect between decriminalisation and these results — it is due to a comprehensive response. But decriminalisation did not affect negatively the evaluation of the phenomenon.”
The family doctor said when a body of experts, of which he was one, recommended a series of steps, including decriminalisation, in 1998 there were dire warnings.
He said these included breaching UN conventions, that the country would become a “paradise” for drug users and that children would start using drugs from an earlier age.
“The policy was enforced in 2001. Now in 2011 we can say it didn’t happen,” Dr Goulao told a two-day conference on drugs in Dublin.
Addressing the National Drugs Conference of Ireland 2011, he said a drug addict was seen as a “sick person” in need of treatment in Portugal and not a criminal.
He said when people were caught in possession of drugs for personal use (below a specified quantity) they were dealt with by a commission for the dissuasion of drug abuse, comprising a legal expert, a health professional and a social worker.
This body identified their needs and could refer them to a range of centres and supports. It dealt with 2,246 cases in 2001, rising to 8,441 in 2009.
He said a key objective was to dissuade consumption. He said there was a “second line” of prevention intervention, referring to it as a “yellow card” system, warning users of their behaviour.
He said the Portuguese model also freed up police resources: “Police are not using their time on small fish, they can go after the sharks.”
He said while overall adult consumption of drugs had risen slightly between 2001 and 2007 usage among 15 to19 year olds had dropped.
EU figures show cannabis and cocaine use among 15 to 34 year olds in Portugal is around half the EU average.
Ms Shortall, who also addressed the conference, said: “They put effort into discouraging or dissuading people from using illicit drugs and have this yellow card system where there’s a warning saying to people ‘do you realise what you are letting yourself in for?’ I’m very interested in that kind of approach.”
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