Since Portugal decriminalized drug use for persons caught with narcotics for personal use, the country has diverted drug users to treatment, reduced the number of people in prison for drug crimes, and shifted police resources to going after bigger criminals.
Those were some of the findings that Dr. Jao Goulao, the drug czar of Portugal, shared at a lunch time talk about drug decriminalization at Rutgers Law School. The talk: Drug Decriminalization, the Triumph of Health and Human Rights Over the Drug War, was sponsored by the Criminal Law Society and Public Interest Law Students Association. Goulao was joined by Randy Thompson, the founder of Help Not Handcuffs, Tess Borden from the ACLU-NJ, and Carol Katz Beyer, a mother who lost two of her sons to the opioid epidemic, who is co-founder of Families for Sensible Drug Policies.
Thompson said his group is a grassroots organization that fights against human rights violations in prisons and abuses at treatment centers and advocates for a sensible drug policy.
Goulao said policies in his country changed 20 years ago after a drug epidemic swept through the country and affected not just poor people, but the middle class. “It’s a window of opportunity to think about new approaches and move into a more humane policy,” he said.
He said judges, social workers, doctors and others were convened to come up with a strategy to deal with the drug epidemic in his country and the experts decided to treat it like a health crisis, not a criminal one. He said additional treatment centers and needle exchange programs were opened for addicts. The country also worked on prevention through television ads.
Goulao said his country began treating drug addiction as a disease, not a crime, though skeptics thought it would lead to children abusing drugs and the country becoming overrun by addicts. He said the new law still prohibited drugs – by limited the amount of drugs one person could have if caught – but sent them to treatment, not prison, if that drug amount was exceeded. “You don’t get stigmatized for your life by going to prison,” he said. Other penalties include fines, abiding by curfews, performing community service, or being restricted in travel.
As a result, Portugal had the lowest rates of drug-related deaths in Europe in 2016, it’s rates of HIV infection have declined and of the 13,600 problem drug users identified by the court system, 9,000 have entered treatment centers.
Borden echoed the idea that drug laws in the U.S. need to be reformed. She said someone is arrested for drug use in the U.S. every 25 seconds, and that majority of those incarcerated are people of color. Abstinence programs don’t work and the more people that go to prison, the more harm is done to their families. “The war on drugs has failed,” she said.