These days, Casal Ventoso is an ordinary blue-collar community – mothers push baby strollers, men smoke outside cafes, buses chug up and down the cobbled main street.
Ten years ago, the Lisbon neighborhood was a hellhole, a “drug supermarket” where some 5,000 users lined up every day to buy heroin and sneaked into a hillside honeycomb of derelict housing to shoot up. In dark, stinking corners, addicts – some with maggots squirming under track marks – staggered between the occasional corpse, scavenging used, bloody needles.
At that time, Portugal, like the junkies of Casal Ventoso, had hit rock bottom: An estimated 100,000 people – an astonishing 1 percent of the population – were addicted to illegal drugs. So, like anyone with little to lose, the Portuguese took a risky leap: They decriminalized the use of all drugs in a groundbreaking law in 2000.
Now, the United States, which has waged a 40-year, $1 trillion war on drugs, is looking for answers in tiny Portugal, which is reaping the benefits of what once looked like a dangerous gamble. White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske visited Portugal in September to learn about its drug reforms, and other countries – including Norway, Denmark, Australia and Peru – have taken interest, too.
“The disasters that were predicted by critics didn’t happen,” said University of Kent professor Alex Stevens, who has studied Portugal’s program. “The answer was simple: Provide treatment.”
Drugs in Portugal are still illegal. But here’s what Portugal did: It changed the law so that users are sent to counseling and sometimes treatment instead of criminal courts and prison. The switch from drugs as a criminal issue to a public health one was aimed at preventing users from going underground.
Other European countries treat drugs as a public health problem, too, but Portugal stands out as the only one that has written that approach into law. The result: More people tried drugs, but fewer ended up addicted.
Here’s what happened between 2000 and 2008:
* There were small increases in illicit drug use among adults, but decreases for adolescents and problem users, such as drug addicts and prisoners.
* Drug-related court cases dropped 66 percent.
* Drug-related HIV cases dropped 75 percent. In 2002, 49 percent of people with AIDS were addicts; by 2008 that number fell to 28 percent.
* The number of regular users held steady at less than 3 percent of the population for marijuana and less than 0.3 percent for heroin and cocaine – figures which show decriminalization brought no surge in drug use.
* The number of people treated for drug addiction rose 20 percent from 2001 to 2008.
Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, one of the chief architects of Portugal’s new drug strategy, says he was inspired partly by his own experience of helping his brother beat addiction.
“It was a very hard change to make at the time because the drug issue involves lots of prejudices,” he said. “You just need to rid yourselves of prejudice and take an intelligent approach.”
Officials have not yet worked out the cost of the program, but they expect no increase in spending, since most of the money was diverted from the justice system to the public health service.
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