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Treatment vs Jail: Portugal’s Success

January 5, 2011

drugs problem addicted arresting addiction illegal jail treatment counseling Portugal flag government addicts abuse drug-related court crime problem public health drug-using criminals ignition interlock device Cleared2Drive relapsing

The United States has been fighting the war on drugs for decades now and there seems to be no end in sight which bring to mind the old proverb about the definition of insanity – “Doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different result.’  Well I think it is time we start doing things differently and here is a good example of where we should start.

Big Risk, Big Reward

Ten years ago, Portugal had a big drug problem. 100,000 people, or about 1% of the population, were addicted to drugs. Portugal found itself in the never-ending cycle of arresting drug criminals, prosecuting them, and then after their sentence was complete finding them back on the streets again. It’s one of the main problems countries face when trying to end drug addiction and the crimes that so often are associated with it.

In 2000, Portugal passed a law that decriminalized the use of all illegal drugs. Drugs are still illegal in Portugal, but instead of throwing someone in possession of drugs to jail, it sends them to treatment or counseling. Portugal wrote it into law that anyone caught with illegal drugs instead of being charged with a criminal offense will go directly to a “Dissuasion Committee” for counseling and further treatment if necessary.

It’s not a new concept, but it is one that is difficult to carry out. How does a government take the first step and say that citizens aren’t going to get in trouble if they are caught with illegal drugs? Fears in Portugal were that everyone would go out and try drugs, and that the country would become full of addicts who were getting away with their drug abuse. But that hasn’t happened. In the last 10 years, Portugal has seen drug-related court cases drop 66%, the number of drug abusers has remained the same, and the number of people receiving treatment rose 20%. Most importantly, some of the country’s worst neighborhoods, once plagued with drug addicts and crime, have become safe.

Opponents

Some argue that policies like these are too soft on drug addicts, and without pressure and the threat of jail some people will never change, and for some people that is true. But only in countries that become lax when it comes to carrying out the law do they see an increase in drug users, but in countries like Portugal who have followed through with the treatment part of the plan, they have seen success. It works because they have changed the drug problem from a law enforcement issue to a public health issue which can be more openly managed.

Throwing a drug addict in jail does little good. We can expect 48% of substance abusing criminals to get caught using drugs again. However, if we can get these people the help they need to live a life without drugs, we can change their lives for good and we would encourage these countries to implement a mandatory ignition interlock device like Cleared2Drive program, which can prevent drugged or impaired driving as they too have proven very successful in keeping people from relapsing.