Looking At Portugal

There’s been an experiment going on in Portugal for nearly a decade that is worth paying attention to.

In the late 1990’s Portugal faced one of the worst drug problems in Europe. Skyrocketing addiction and poverty had turned a once proud nation into a mess. Desperate times called for desperate measures. So how to save money and combat the addiction problem at the same time?

The experiment wasn’t to legalize drug use. No one thought that ignoring the problems drugs caused was a solution. But there was a middle ground between full-on legalization and ratcheting up enforcement. Compromise was in the air.

The solution tried was keeping drugs illegal, but not arresting those who were caught with amounts for personal use. Dealers and traffickers would be handled as always. Users, however, would get their drugs confiscated and then would have to appear before a “commission.” In Portugal, these commissions consist of a lawyer, a psychiatrist and a social worker. These three professionals decide what happens next.

In many cases, mandatory treatment is the result. Other sentences may be community service or a fine. But the real benefit is connecting addicts with resources where they can get help.

On the money saving side, court costs and incarceration costs dropped dramatically. One the human side, drug use and addiction has fallen across the country. There are still drugs around and still addicts using, but the drug problem in Portugal is now much less than it ever was and continuing to get better.

Maybe it’s time to rethink how we do things in the States. Sure, we aren’t Portugal and we’d like our own customized solution. Perhaps the rise of drug courts in the U.S. is our version of the same pathway. The bottom line seems to be that more enforcement doesn’t, by itself, do much other than line the pockets of the prison industry and manufacture more tragedy from an already tragic situation.

Prison always remains an option if treatment and other, less Draconian measures fail. Portugal seems to demonstrate that trying to save those who can be saved is worth considering.

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