Portuguese drugs strategy - Cheaper to treat addicts than jail them

THE launch yesterday of the latest National Drugs Strategy represents the first serious attempt by an Irish government to take illegal drug use away from the criminal justice system and treat it as a health issue. It is also the first time that alcohol has been included as part of the strategy.

That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that it took a last-minute flurry of negotiations before the Government was able to persuade community groups to come on board with the strategy.

Those groups secured late concessions regarding effective implementation structures and actions to tackle alcohol abuse, intimidation, and youth disadvantage.

But the underlying issue remains one of credibility. How can a government that slashed funding for drug projects be trusted to put sufficient resources to operate the new strategy effectively?

Yesterday’s 106-page report contains more than 50 recommendations for dealing with both drug and alcohol use in
Ireland but it has yet to be costed and, as community groups have found in the past, well-meaning plans are all very well but they are next to useless unless the money is their to put them into practice.

Considering the social implications of drug abuse — alcohol included — it is worth noting practices elsewhere and to learn lessons from countries that got their strategies right and those that didn’t. The Netherlands got it wrong, while Portugal appears to have got it right.

There is a misconception that it is perfectly legal for people to take drugs for personal use throughout the Netherlands. Despite the so-called ‘coffee shops’ in the capital Amsterdam, the Dutch have never actually legalised the cannabis trade. They simply do not enforce their criminal laws against the shops, provided they abide by certain strict rules.

Drug laws in Holland are as opaque as the marijuana
haze-filled coffee shops, and many of those are now closing as the Dutch authorities usher in a stricter regime.

Portugal was the first European country in 2001 to openly decriminalise the taking of small amounts of drugs for
personal use, replacing court fines or jail with the offer of therapy. Those found in possession of small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser for appropriate treatment, which may be refused without criminal conviction or other form of punishment.

Unlike the Dutch model, the Portuguese approach was well thought out, deliberate, and costed. Surveys have shown that, since then, illegal drug use among teenagers in Portugal has declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction has more than doubled.

For social reasons as well as value-for-money reasons, the Government should look to the Portuguese experience. The fear of prison drives addicts into the criminal underworld and, as the Portuguese have shown for the past 16 years, it is far cheaper to treat drug users than to jail them.


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