In the latest sign of European rejection of US and UN-sponsored repressive anti-drug strategies, Portugal's new drug laws went into effect on July 1. Under the laws, debated last summer and finalized in November, possession of personal amounts of any drug is no longer a crime. Instead, possession of up to a ten-day supply of any drug will be treated as an administrative matter rather than a criminal offense. Persons caught possessing drugs will have their stashes confiscated and be referred to a commission of doctors, lawyers, and social workers who will decide if they need counseling or treatment. Previously, persons caught with drugs faced up to a year in jail.
Drug trafficking remains a crime, although dealing to pay for a drug habit will be considered a mitigating factor.
United Nations International Drug Control Board (INCB) officials immediately lashed out at the new law. INCB Deputy Head Akira Fujino told the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet: "There is a clear trend in Western Europe to decriminalize use and possession of narcotics and to view addicts as patients. But that seldom solves the addict's personal problems nor reduces the demand for narcotics," complained the prohibition bureaucrat. "Other countries that have chosen a liberal approach such as special injection rooms, are Switzerland, Germany, Spain and Holland, and we are deeply concerned over this trend."
Citing the possibility of a spill-over effect for the rest of the European Union, Fujino warned that: "The Portugese law can trap more 'at risk' into dependency as well as increase the misery of those already addicted. The law, in effect, says that it's OK to consume narcotics."
Portuguese officials have more concrete concerns. The number of hard drug addicts has escalated over the past decade, and Portugal has Europe's highest HIV infection rate. According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (http://www.emcdda.org), Portugal, with a population of ten million, has between 50,000 and 200,000 drug addicts. By contrast, the Netherlands, with 16 million inhabitants and a liberal drug policy, has an estimated 25,000 addicts.
The new law reflects Portugal's turn to harm reduction and away from repression in an effort to blunt the damage from drug prohibition. "The idea is to get away from punishment and move toward care," Portuguese government spokesman Carlos Borges told Reuters.
That Portugal has decriminalized the possession of drugs is apparently not newsworthy in the US. DRCNet has been unable to find any mention of this story in mainstream media outlets in this country.
(See DRCNet's previous coverage of Portugal's drug policy reform at http://www.drcnet.org/wol/145.html#portugal online.)