Portugal no rogue state of hippie drug enthusiasts

Plain Rhetoric
By Bill McQuarrie
November 14, 2017 - 8:55am

KAMLOOPS — Last week’s column on our failed policies of criminalization and enforcement on drug use generated a large number of comments with opinions ranging from:  “Build large warehouse prisons and lock up those who cannot live with the rest of us.” to “...a little insight and understanding the plight of addicts would go along way with the public concerns.”  

It was a mix of intolerance, misconceptions and compassion. And if the comments were representative of Kamloops in general, the law and order side was the predominantly held view.  

There were suggestions that more money, more police, more prisons and in some comments, even the suspension of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would help solve the problem.

With the exception of violating the Charter, all the others have been in place for decades and have gotten us exactly where?  

So what other options are available? I mentioned Portugal’s solution which, despite the assumption of many, does not involve the decriminalization of drugs and has become the centrepiece for a more intelligent, socially responsible and common sense approach to drug use and addiction.

Portugal’s approach has been in place since 2001 and drugs continue to be illegal but they have decriminalized possession for amounts not exceeding a 10-day personal supply. Selling drugs remains a criminal offence and jail time comes with a conviction.

Drug substitution treatments are available throughout the country, are free and include medical help for addiction and health related issues. Portugal follows up initial substitution treatment with a fully integrated after-care and reintegration program. And from there they developed and implemented a complete training, employment and housing program.

They have 73 specialized treatment facilities and 14 detox units along with 70 public outpatient facilities and 13 daycare centres.

Portugal shifted from the crime and punishment model for users to a more health-centred approach in combination with new social policies. So what did they get in return?

In a CBC interview,  “…and going by the 2016 United Nations World Drug report, they <Portugal> have one of the lowest fatal overdose rates in the world. In 2012, they had just 16 drug-related deaths in a country of 10.5 million.”

Deaths by overdose in Portugal were once the highest in the EU and are now down to 3 overdose related deaths per one million, compared to 44.6 in the UK and an EU average of 17.3

Drug related illnesses such as STDs have decreased dramatically and HIV and Hep-C are down by 90 per cent among users.

In 2000, there were 6040 people using substitution treatments and by 2008 that number had increased to 25,808.

Teenage use is down by 45 per cent and the feared dramatic increase in drug use among all ages has failed to materialize.

Is it a cure all? No, but it is a start and is working better than the decades old and failed crime and punishment model.

Will it work in BC? This is where it could get complicated as noted by Kamloops resident David Johnson. Mr. Johnson commented on last week’s column saying, “The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act is a federal law, yet the responsibility for application of social justice and health care falls to the provinces.   

Bluntly put, the feds would save a lot of money from diverting people from the criminal justice budget, as well as the cost of prohibition ... yet it is the provinces that would need to pay for the increased costs for social and health programs to assist these same people. We all know that the provinces will not take orders from the feds on health care regarding specific programs and demand to retain the latitude to spend 'as it seems fit', and that won’t change here.”

If there is a will though, then the chances of finding a way are dramatically improved, which brings us back to local government.  

Keep in mind, Portugal is not alone nor a rogue state of hippie drug enthusiasts. There are 25 other countries that have decriminalized possession and moved away from punitive drug enforcement practices.

City council hasn’t the ability, means or jurisdiction to make the kind of changes needed. However, they do have a voice and need to use it.  

They can continue down this senseless path of preaching to the ‘lock ‘em up’ crowd while spending more on methods guaranteed, as they always have, to fail. Or they can start learning from progressive societies and begin lobbying senior governments to treat addiction as a health and social issue.

Change begins at the community level and grows from there. Do we stay with the Charles Dickens era of crime and punishment or accept that maybe all those other countries have something we should be looking at?