Moves Drug War From Prisons to Clinics
By T.R. Reid
LISBON -- The last time the
cops nabbed Miguel, he was carrying one envelope with several grams
of heroin and another with a slightly smaller stash of cocaine. "I
thought, 'Oh Lord, here we go again,' " Miguel said, grimacing
at the memory. "I figured I was headed straight back to Leiria,"
the dank national prison where he has served two terms on drug charges.
As it turned out, Miguel
did not do another stretch behind bars -- not because of a clever defense
lawyer, but because of Portugal's fundamentally new battle plan in the
long-running war on drugs: This nation of 10 million has decriminalized
all drug use.
of the nation's biggest drug treatment center, Dr. Luis D. Patricio
favors Portugal's decision to decriminalize hard drugs. "In
prison, you turn an amateur drug user into a professional,"
Today Miguel remains a free
man, dividing his time between part-time work as an auto mechanic and
outpatient treatment at Lisbon's biggest drug treatment clinic.
"It's a good deal, because
what I really want is to give up drugs," said the 29-year-old addict,
who admitted that he has sold small amounts of drugs on occasion to
support his habit. "And I could never do that in prison; in there,
the dealers are living right next to you."
The way Portugal has handled
Miguel (under clinic rules, his full name cannot be disclosed) and thousands
of people like him reflects a shifting attitude toward drugs in many
West European countries. Increasingly, drug users are viewed not as
criminals, but as victims of a drug culture that tough laws could not
Spain, Italy and Luxembourg
have also decriminalized possession and use of most drugs, and several
other countries have effectively done the same by waiving criminal penalties
for addicts who are not found to be dealing.
The director of the European
Union's Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Georges Estievenart,
noted that this more tolerant stance applies not just to users of such
"soft" drugs as marijuana, but also to heroin and cocaine
addicts. "The general trend across Europe," Estievenart said,
"is an approach that focuses on the traffickers and does not pursue
the drug user as a criminal. The premise is that it is not in the interest
of society to put these people in jail, where they don't get treatment
but do get fairly easy access to all kinds of drugs.
"Some people refer to
this as the 'pragmatic' approach," he said. "It assumes that
drug use is a fact of life that society can't stop, so policymakers
should try to control the damage. The U.S. perspective, of course, is
different. They seek to eliminate drug use by prohibition."
Drug policy is not uniform
across Europe. Some countries, notably Sweden and Greece, have held
fairly firmly to a U.S.-style, "just-say-no" approach. But
in most of Western Europe, said Jonathan Cave, a drug policy expert
at Warwick University in Britain, "the general direction is harm
reduction rather than use reduction."
"As the U.S. experience
shows, people do obtain and use drugs, even if you spend billions trying
to stop them," Cave said. "So now the goal [in Europe] is
to have it happen without the risk of overdose, of HIV, of random crime
to support the habit."
The ethos of harm reduction
was set forth succinctly by Vitalino Canas, the former Portuguese government
minister who has championed the new approach here. "Of course our
message is, 'Don't use drugs at all,' " Canas said. "But people
don't always listen. So then we say, 'If you use, do not use hard drugs.
And if you use hard drugs, do not inject them. And if you inject, do
not share needles.' We think this is more realistic than 'just say no'
all by itself."
Europe's approach has drawn
some sharp criticism, not least from the International Narcotics Control
Board, the U.N. agency set up to enforce several international treaties
that ban the sale or use of narcotics.
The control board argues
that uniform global prohibitions are essential to stop the use and movement
of drugs. Western Europe's policy amounts to defeatism, said the board's
president, Hamid Ghodse. "It may not be possible to eliminate all
forms of drug experimentation, use and abuse," Ghodse said. "But
the difficulty of the challenge should not be used as an excuse not
to take action."
U.S. drug enforcement officials
have also sniped at European drug policies, saying that legalization
To date, there is little
clear evidence as to the impact of the new policies. "We are eagerly
awaiting studies," said the EU's Estievenart. "But so far,
we don't have the data to show whether or not the pragmatic solution
can reduce the use of drugs."
The shift toward tolerance
began decades ago. In the 1970s, the Netherlands was a leader, tolerating
use of such so-called soft drugs as marijuana, or cannabis, as it is
generally known in Europe. The famous "hash houses" that opened
along the old canals of Amsterdam still draw a steady clientele of locals
Customers can order from
two different menus. One has coffee -- espresso, cappuccino and the
like. The other has an even wider selection of hashish, a form of cannabis
-- "Nepal," "Kashmir," "Thai," "Kabul."
The barman will also roll joints, which cost about $3 each.
Contrary to Amsterdam's freewheeling
reputation, the hash houses tend to be quiet and controlled. At risk
of police closure, the shops strictly enforce the mandatory age limits
-- customers have to be 18 to buy drugs there, two years older than
the legal drinking age.
worked fairly well in the Netherlands," said Cave, the drug policy
expert at Warwick University, adding that few hash-house customers have
been found to move on to hard drugs.
Amsterdam's approach to cannabis
spread widely through Europe. Today, by statute or in practice, police
officers in most European countries ignore users of marijuana or so-called
recreational drugs such as amphetamines and ecstasy.
The latest convert is Britain,
where the Home Office (roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Justice Department)
said in March that it would downgrade cannabis from a "Class B"
to "Class C" drug. This would eliminate criminal penalties
and treat possession or use like a parking violation.
With the approval of the
central government, some local police departments in Britain have already
taken that step in practice. In the south London neighborhood of Brixton,
the local police commissioner announced last year that his officers
would no longer bother to arrest pot smokers. Today it is commonplace
to see young Londoners lighting a "spliff" on the sidewalk
outside Brixton's police station.
A recent study by the Joseph
Rowntree Foundation, a London research group, concluded that the Brixton
experiment was a resounding success. Ignoring marijuana offenses, the
study concluded, allowed the police to direct money and personnel to
more serious crimes and "removed a major source of friction between
the police and the community." The report said the more relaxed
approach was "unlikely" to lead to greater use of marijuana
or more harmful drugs. It offered no data to support this conclusion.
For the most part, the non-enforcement
policy toward soft drugs has gone over well with European voters. But
Europe's new moves to decriminalize such drugs as heroin and cocaine
can be a tougher political sell.
Nobody knows that better
than Vitalino Canas, an urbane, articulate former law professor who
was a Portuguese government minister. It was Canas who led this socially
conservative, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country to abandon its long-standing
prohibitionist policy toward hard drugs.
Canas spent a year or more
discussing the plan with the Catholic Church, the medical community
and the police before introducing legislation. The key political step,
he said, was rejecting any suggestion that decriminalization amounts
to a stamp of approval for drugs.
"You have to be very
careful about the message you send," Canas explained. "We
do not say, we have never said, that it is good to use heroin or cocaine.
These drugs are still forbidden. What has changed is the means we use
to prevent their use."
Portugal's new drug law is
so protective that it rejects terms such as "addict" or "user."
Rather, the person hooked on hard drugs is referred to as a "consumer."
In the real world, the distinction
between "consumer" and "dealer" is not always clear,
of course. To draw the line, Portugal has made rules based on quantity.
Anyone arrested with less than 10 days' personal supply of each drug
is considered to be in possession of the drugs for personal use and
is not prosecuted. Anyone arrested with more than 10 days' supply can
be charged with dealing.
A drug user picked up by
the police is initially sent to one of 18 civilian "drug commissions"
around the country. The commission is supposed to deal with each case
individually, but users of cannabis or amphetamines are generally given
educational material and released, while those using hard drugs are
assigned to a treatment program.
A user who accepts treatment
faces no further punishment, Canas said. Those who duck out of treatment,
or are caught offending again, face administrative penalties similar
to those for speeding or failing to file a tax return. Initially, there
are fines, beginning at about $22. More serious violators can lose their
driver's license or the right to travel abroad, or be assigned to such
public service jobs as cleaning graffiti off the city's walls.
Elza Pais, who runs the local
drug commission for Lisbon, said most consumers turned over by police
say they want to break the drug habit and that they readily accept treatment.
A few would actually prefer to go to prison, she said, perhaps because
drugs tend to be easier to obtain there. "But we no longer have
Like most of the people arrested
for drug use in Lisbon, Miguel was dispatched to the sprawling four-story
treatment center on Taipas Street in Lisbon's Bairro Alto neighborhood.
There he came under the friendly but firm ministrations of the center's
energetic director, Luis D. Patricio.
"We have inpatients
and outpatients here," Patricio said, leading a tour of his center
like a hotel manager showing off a fancy new resort. "We have young
mothers and aging pensioners. We have people who genuinely want to end
their addiction, and people who probably just think it is easier to
come here for methadone than to scratch up the money for a fix on the
"But for all of them,
we have the same message now: You are not a criminal. You do not have
to fear the government or the doctor. With good treatment you can get
over addiction, and we are going to help you do it."
After two decades of treating
Lisbon's drug problem, Patricio said he is certain Portugal's new policy
is the best course. "In prison, you turn an amateur drug user into
a professional," he said. "That's what America is doing; in
Europe, we are looking for other solutions."
Canas, the former government
minister, acknowledges that the long-term result of the policy is unclear.
"We only put the law into effect last July," he said. "Perhaps
in a year or so, we will be able to draw some conclusions about the
"For now, the fact is
that we are experimenting."
© 2002 The Washington Post