I keep seeing people holding up Portugal as the preeminent example of how to respond to the drug crisis. In the last two decades, drug usage among youth has dropped, their STI rate has dropped, their drug-related death rate has dropped, and their treatment rate has gone up.
Those results are certainly better than Canada’s, so it makes sense that Canadians would want to mirror that.
Except, Portugal’s approach doesn’t go far enough.
First, drug possession has never been decriminalized. Despite the popular representation of their drug policy, drug usage in Portugal is still illegal for anyone using or possessing any drug for personal use without authorization. In fact, unlike in Canada, it’s illegal to use marijuana recreationally in Portugal. For cases of possession where the amount is more than a 10-day supply, the offence is an administrative one rather than a criminal one. Plus criminal penalties can still be applied to growers, dealers, and traffickers.
Second, while people who use or possess drugs may not automatically face a prison sentence anymore, they still must be prosecuted. Their drugs are confiscated, and they have to appear before a special commission. This commission has several sanctions they can apply to these users:
- Professional license suspension
- Travel bans
- Establishment bans
- Gun bans
- Confiscation of personal property
- Cancelling social benefit payments
Third, the commission can avoid sanctions in favour of mandating offenders into treatment. It’s technically not mandatory, but if your options are community service, fines, or treatment, it might as well be mandatory.
Finally, law enforcement is still confiscating several tonnes of drugs every year. The money spent on these law enforcement efforts could be spent on prevention and treatment programmes instead.
Certainly, Portugal’s action on the drug crisis is more progressive than Canada’s, but we should be careful about framing it as the standard. As I’ve stated before, what we need to properly address the drug crisis are:
- Decriminalize all drugs
- Redirect enforcement funding to prevention, harm reduction, and treatment programmes
- Make all drugs available through dispensaries and pharmacies
- Include all drugs in a national pharmacare programme
This approach makes drugs safer, it reduces drug usage in general, it reduces health risks, and it reduces crime.
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