There was a time not long ago that Portugal had a similar attitude to addiction and addiction treatment as we do here in the States. However, a decade-plus shows just how drastically a proper approach to this disease can change a whole nation.
The first step was decriminalizing drugs—all of them. Now, that is not to say that people can go around freely using and selling drugs without intervention from police. That would be drug legalization—which is what Colorado and Washington are doing with marijuana. Instead, Portugal decided it was time to stop treating addicts and alcoholics as morally degenerate criminals, and more like the ill individuals that they truly are.
Because they went with decriminalization instead of legalization, the courts still maintained the authority to intervene on the behalf of the individual and society. However, the second step they took was measuring addiction and alcoholism by a different standard than the old laws, which merely imprisoned addicts and alcoholics.
That meant taking the power out of the hands of the criminal justice department, and instead making mental health professionals an equal or greater part in determining an addict’s future. Further, each case is taken on an individual basis, rather than an overly generic set of circumstances which are often stacked against the addict, aimed primarily at punishment rather than rehabilitation. By using qualified professionals and evaluating each case independently, the rate of successful addiction treatment skyrockets.
How effective is it? Consider that the drug problem as a whole has been reduced by 50% since the new policy was adopted. While that is impressive, some might try to dismiss these successes. However, Portugal not only had a 50% reduction in the number of practicing addicts, but they now have one of the lowest drug usage rates in Europe.
While that would normally be good news in and of itself, the fact that Portugal was one of the hardest hit European nations in the 2008 market crash makes these numbers all the more important. As a result of offering addiction treatment instead of punishment, the country as a whole is benefitting from the healthcare aspect of it. The number of health complications that result from drug addiction and abuse plummeted even more than the rates of the users themselves simply by offering treatment as an option without the threat of retaliation by the courts.
Lets face it: jail is not meant to treat addiction. It is purely punitive. That might work for some—acting as a badly needed wakeup-call—but for the vast majority of addicts and alcoholics who are repeat offenders of such laws, it makes little sense to continue the same routines, which have proven not to be effective. It is time to start assuming that the system is fine, and it is the fault of the individual; and to start assuming that the individual has no control, and thus the system needs to change instead.
What do you think? Should drugs be decriminalized and addiction treatment offered, or could such a program not work in America? Let us know in the comments!