Call to follow Portuguese lead on drugs

Dr João Goulão speaking at Portugal’s International day against drug abuse and illicit trafficking.
Portugal's radical solution to decriminalise drugs is being considered by some politicians in Australia. Adam Pereira reports

After watching his country go through one of the most serious heroin epidemics, Dr João Goulão decided that he would not watch his country suffer and pushed to change Portugal forever.

In 1999, one percent of Portugal’s population was addicted to heroin and the nation had the highest drug-related AIDS deaths in the European Union, according to the New Yorker. But in 2001 the country made a historical change in drug reform.

With the help of João Goulão, Portugal decriminalized all drugs and shifted drug possession and consumption from a criminal offence to an administrative one. Fifteen years later statistics show this is one of the most progressive ways to tackle an increase in drug addiction.

“Data and studies on the impact of decriminalization showed that there is a positive evolution on most of the indicators related to use, namely the decrease of drug use of all illicit substances among the younger population,” says Dr Goulão.

Portugal’s radical solution to decriminalise drugs is being considered by some politicians in Australia. Like Portugal’s heroin epidemic, the use of methamphetamines has risen so much that the Coalition government had to create a National Ice Task Force to tackle the problem.

Liam Purdon, a 21-year-old former ice user, says it is not easy to make changes. “I think the worse thing is that you think everyone will judge you as this bad person and that no one actually does want to help you.”

NDARC, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, reports that the 15 to 24-ice user age group has more than doubled from about 21,000 regular and dependent users five years ago to 59,000 users now.

The National Ice Taskforce found Australians were among the world’s biggest users of crystal methamphetamine, with the number of addicts doubling to more than 200,000 in the past eight years.

How to tackle the increase of such a dangerous drug has become highly topical, with Greens leader Richard Di Natale at the forefront of decriminalising harder drugs in Australia.

“What we are doing at the moment isn’t working. It’s a policy approach that’s just failing us,” Natale says.

However Gary Christian, secretary of Drug Free Australia, believes there are no advantages to decriminalising drugs.

“Saving the reputation of a drug user only leads to more drug use and more overall harm to the community,” Christian says.

But Liam, the former ice user, says having a reputation of being a drug user makes it almost impossible to seek help.

“I think people really do look at you differently and judge you as a lesser person. That makes it so hard to even go and seek help from your best friends,” he says.

Ahead of the 2016 Parliamentary Drug Summit, The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre reported that Australian governments spent approximately $1.6 billion in 2009/10 on illicit drugs.

Of this spending, $1 billion or 64 per cent went on law enforcement, 22 per cent on treatment, 10 percent on prevention and 2 percent on harm reduction.

“All this money could be spent on making rehabilitation services and counselling more affordable and accessible,” Mr Purdon says.

“I have friends and family now that are users and they do deep down want to change and stop but simply can’t afford any treatment centres, and the ones that they can afford have waiting list for 6-8 months, and they’re still using today.”

The Drug Summit committee found putting health and community safety first requires a broadening of illicit drug policy in Australia, away from failed punitive enforcement to proven health and social interventions.

The diverse group of doctors, academics and politicians found Australia should implement and evaluate the health benefits of removing criminal sanctions for personal drug use as demonstrated in international settings, with Portugal’s drug framework used as an example.

Dr João Goulão says: “The decriminalization of drug use is always a way to bring consumers near the answers given in the area of health, either related with treatment responses or harm reduction responses.”

Goulão and his organisation EMCDDA argue that people need to stop associating the term legalising with decriminalising.

“Decriminalising, legalising and penalising” have key differences, he says.

“It is helpful to explore the different ideas that lie behind them if we are to understand better what they mean when they are used in the debate on different approaches to controlling the supply and use of drugs,” he says.

“I don’t think I do associate decriminalising with legalising drugs, but I do think the majority of people do and they don’t actually know the difference between the two,” says Liam Purdon.

In a 3AW interview, Richard Di Natale proposed the idea of decriminalising Ice, with Environment Minister Greg Hunt responding that it would “legitimise” the use of ice.

“I think this a terrible and frightening idea,” Hunt says.

Liam Purdon says Australia should adopt a similar drug framework to Portugal. “I think convicting someone or throwing them in jail for small amounts of drugs for personal use is stupid.”

Anyone caught consuming or in the possession of less than 10 days supply of a substance in Portugal must go before the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, which is made up of an attorney, a social worker and a psychiatrist.

The panel of three help determine the appropriate penalty, either a small fine, community service, counselling or in serious cases drug rehabilitation.

Portugal’s drug reforms have led to a decrease in recent users within the general population (15-64 years old) and young adults (15-34 years old), according to the EMCDDA.

There has been an increase in demand from cannabis users for treatment, a decrease in drug-related deaths and infectious diseases associated with intravenous drug use.

“This was a historic turning point in the structuring of a global policy on drugs. A law, in place since 2001, decriminalized personal consumption of drugs, but maintains drug use as an illicit behaviour,” says Goulao.