In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drugs; all of them. Heroin, cocaine, meth, weed and whatever else you can think of. Drug dealers and drug crimes were still fined and held true, but addicts were no longer penalized by the justice system. Portugal turned addiction into a matter of public health instead of a criminal issue. By 2012, HIV infections went from 1,016 cases in a year to 56. Drug induced deaths decreased vastly and drug use declined heavily within the 15-24 age population which is monumental!
Has the U.S Thought About Decriminalized Drugs?
Some communities in the United States have begun to model this as well. In New England, the Gloucester Police Department did something unheard of. The GPD came out and said that if anyone comes to the station an officer will take them to a local hospital where they will be teamed up with a volunteer that will help them through steps to treatment. They also said that if someone has drugs or drug paraphernalia on them they will not be arrested or fined. They are openly making it okay for someone with an issue to go into their police station and ask for help. So many people struggle with substance abuse and can’t get the help they need. This could be because of lack of support, insufficient funds, or not wanting help.
There is a bigger issue than just decriminalizing drugs. It’s the stigma that is attached with drug addiction in general. If we copied Portugal’s model and made it an issue of public health, I believe more people would get more help. If someone with cancer was afraid of getting in trouble or judged for their disease, would people go in to seek treatment? Maybe not. It’s hard to say, but we have working proof.
Putting it in to Perspective
Making drugs decriminalized in Portugal and turning it into an issue citizens need help with, shifts the entire mentality of the disease. We have this stigma that people who are addicted are bad, or did it to themselves. You don’t look at someone who has bronchitis, as someone who did it to themselves. It’s a mentality. There are arguments that people use substances and it’s a choice, which is true. Not everyone becomes addicted and not everyone is an addict. The bottom line is that when someone is addicted to substances, their brain chemicals have become unbalanced, and they are sick. We don’t punish people who are sick who didn’t take as good of care of themselves as they should have. Do we refuse to treat diabetics because they ate too much junk food in their early 20s?
We need to start treating people with addiction like we do with other diseases. I hope that more towns and organizations start to emulate the GPD and Portugal’s model. Deaths, infections, and money spent on jailing citizens for minor marijuana possession has declined steadily in the last fourteen years. Clearly what we are doing now isn’t working, we should switch to a method that is successful.
By: Erica T.