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Edition #12
Rio de Janeiro, 2009

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“DKANDLE weaves swirling multi-colored vibrant unearthly soundscapes, blending fuzzy and reverberating Shoegaze textures, mesmerizing Dream Pop meditations, sludgy Grungey tones and moody Post-punk strains, heightened with soul-stirring lyricism and pensive emotive vocalizations”

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NO CRIME AT ALL

User smokes marijuana on a street in Porto. The Portuguese realized that "there is no point in repression". Failing to arrest did not encourage use.

Originally published by Época magazine

TAGS : activism, drugs, places, marijuana, politics, videos

Ten years separate two realities of the same country. Until 2000, Portugal was plagued by the worst drug epidemic in its history – and one of the most severe in Europe. Today, the Portuguese are proud of their successful decriminalization policy. In the 1990s, the country had up to 150,000 heroin addicts (almost 1.5% of the population). In 2001, the Portuguese government took a risk: it decriminalized the individual possession of all drugs, from marijuana to heroin. Since then, the Portuguese police do not arrest those caught with small amounts of drugs. Instead of punishment, users caught are referred for treatment. When this decision was approved by Parliament, there were fears of a surge in drug use. But what is now seen is a decrease in the use of all drugs across all age groups.

The positive numbers of decriminalization have only now been made public with the release of a report by the Cato Institute. Between 2001 and 2006, overdose deaths fell from 400 to 290. The number of people infected with HIV from sharing contaminated needles dropped from 2,000 to 1,400. Most importantly, Portugal did not become a destination for young Europeans looking to use drugs without police interference.

The theory behind the liberal decriminalization policy was based on a humanistic premise: “You need to make a choice between treating the user as a criminal or as a patient who needs help,” says Manuel Cardoso, director of the Institute for Drugs and Drug Addiction (IDT). According to the current Portuguese law, those caught using or possessing small amounts of drugs are not criminally prosecuted. The limit is an amount sufficient for ten days of consumption. If caught by the police, however, the user will be referred to a “dissuasion commission.” Last year, about 7,500 Portuguese passed through these commissions. A psychologist, a lawyer, and a social worker assess the user's profile and recommend treatment or a fine. The penalty for traffickers has not changed. Anyone caught dealing any type of drug goes to jail as a common criminal.

The measure may seem radical, but its effects show that it succeeded in addressing the drug explosion that began in the 70s, spurred by the behavioral changes that shook the country with the Carnation Revolution. When Portugal decided to change its drug law in 2001, Europe still remembered the depressing images of “zombies” wandering around Platzspitz, in Zurich, Switzerland. There, what was supposed to be a public square for users to safely take drugs under medical supervision with clean needles turned into a playground for addicts and dealers. Switzerland acknowledged the failure of the measure and closed the square in 1992.

Portugal's decriminalization experience did not repeat the Swiss failure. The first statistics to attract the attention of Portuguese authorities were from the drug user rehabilitation system. From 1999 to 2008, the number of addicts who underwent treatment jumped from 6,000 to 24,000. To accommodate the new users seeking rehabilitation, the use of methadone, a chemical substance used in the treatment of heroin addiction, almost tripled between 2001 and 2006. “When treated as a criminal, the user stayed in the underworld,” says Cardoso. “This is the user who now seeks treatment.”

 

The increase in demand for rehabilitation showed no correlation with an increase in consumption – one of the biggest fears of those who had criticized the law in the past. Statistics from the IDT show that the number of children and adolescents who have tried some type of drug in their lives has decreased across all age groups and for all types of drugs. The use of heroin, a very sensitive indicator for the Portuguese who remember the drug epidemic, remained stable. Between 2001 and 2007, the percentage of people of all ages who admitted to having tried the drug at least once went from 1% to 1.1%, a difference considered insignificant by scholars.

Marijuana, a drug that at least 10% of Portuguese people over the age of 15 have used, also seems to have fallen out of favor. Today, Portugal is among the countries with one of the lowest rates of marijuana consumption in Europe. The number is impressive when compared, for example, to marijuana use in the United States, where 39% of the population over 12 years old have used the drug. Proportionally, more Americans are snorting cocaine than Portuguese are smoking joints. This type of comparison has become a powerful argument for proponents of decriminalization. “Portugal is an example that should be carefully considered by other countries,” wrote American lawyer Glenn Greenwald, director of the Cato Institute and author of the study on decriminalization.

Greenwald, considered one of the most influential lawyers in the US, highlights another advantage: drug trafficking seems to have decreased. The number of traffickers prosecuted by Portuguese courts has decreased since the law was implemented. In 2000, there were 2,211 prosecutions. In 2008, there were 1,327. If the rigor of the Portuguese police and judiciary has remained unchanged over the past decade, this could indicate that the “war on drugs” advocated by the United States has an inherently flawed nature.

Given so much positive evidence, where might the weaknesses of the Portuguese model lie? The numbers immediately point to two problems: an increase in cocaine use and the number of drug-related deaths starting in 2006. The Portuguese government says these are just isolated issues, caused by consumption trends or changes in methodology, and that they do not undermine its credibility. This is where some experts disagree. Many believe that Portugal achieved such results because it followed a trend of decreasing drug use observed across Europe.

Other critics argue that the size of Portugal, with about 10 million inhabitants, is not a valid parameter for determining whether decriminalization would work, for example, in the United States. At least everyone agrees that if Portugal's decriminalization experiment did not help, it also did not hinder, unlike the disastrous Platzspitz experience. The only empirical certainties indicate that the distribution of clean needles does indeed reduce the number of HIV infections. But no one has been able to understand, for example, why Poland, without any noteworthy anti-drug policy, has the lowest cocaine consumption rates in Europe.

Liberals continue to believe in the positive example set by Portugal. Earlier this year, a study by The Economist magazine in partnership with the United Nations investigated the relationship between narcotics and punishment levels in 17 countries. The study concluded that there is no relationship between the two. A comparison between two countries at opposite ends of the “punitive rigor” spectrum, liberal Netherlands and strict Sweden, showed that legislation did not affect the problems these countries faced in treating drug addicts. In the US, where the harshest rules against trafficking and consumption prevail, drugs remain a scourge.

What can the decriminalization of drugs in Portugal teach Brazil? “Choosing the ideal model is a matter of political will and, above all, pragmatism,” says Manuel Cardoso. In favor of decriminalizing marijuana (and not its legalization, which would imply the legitimacy of its production and sale) are three former Latin American presidents: Brazil's Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Colombia's César Gaviria, and Mexico's Ernesto Zedillo. A year ago, at the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, the main argument of this group was presented, one that explains the success of Portugal: the billions of dollars that governments spend on arresting and prosecuting drug users would be better spent on rehabilitation programs. If it is true that the size and culture of Portugal do not reflect what could happen in Brazil, the Argentine experience of marijuana decriminalization, in effect since August, will show whether a liberal policy can succeed in Latin America. In Portugal, so far, it seems to have worked.

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