Treating Drug Epidemics Requires More Than Changes in Law

AP Photo/David Goldman

For a small country, Portugal has a lot of scientific and anecdotal data to offer the world about protecting people from substance abuse. At The Guardian, Susana Ferreira spends time in Portugal’s north and south, examining the sweeping shift from a standard punitive approach to drug use to one focused on harm-reduction. Since decriminalizing drug possession and consumption in 2001, the country has staved off a massive drug epidemic and its associated issues, from HIV to overflowing prisons. Ferreira examines the subtle cultural shifts that underpin Portugal’s success: no longer thinking of soft versus hard drugs, no longer looking at drug users as ‘junkies,’ but as ‘people with addiction disorders.’ Success requires social services and as well as new ways of thinking, which are things the U.S. has long struggled with, but should strongly reconsider as we suffer our own opioid epidemic.

“These social movements take time,” Goulão told me. “The fact that this happened across the board in a conservative society such as ours had some impact.” If the heroin epidemic had affected only Portugal’s lower classes or racialised minorities, and not the middle or upper classes, he doubts the conversation around drugs, addiction and harm reduction would have taken shape in the same way. “There was a point whenyou could not find a single Portuguese family that wasn’t affected. Every family had their addict, or addicts. This was universal in a way that the society felt: ‘We have to do something.’”

Portugal’s policy rests on three pillars: one, that there’s no such thing as a soft or hard drug, only healthy and unhealthy relationships with drugs; two, that an individual’s unhealthy relationship with drugs often conceals frayed relationships with loved ones, with the world around them, and with themselves; and three, that the eradication of all drugs is an impossible goal.

“The national policy is to treat each individual differently,” Goulão told me. “The secret is for us to be present.”

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