“The key to the CDTs is their focus on helping users: they are nonjudgmental. This is the fundamental difference from the criminal justice system, including the drugs courts: it is not a “me v. you” attitude, but one of commonality: we are here to see if we can give help and, at the same time, help is not imposed.” “ (GATEWAYS FROM CRIME TO HEALTH: THE PORTUGUESE DRUG COMMISSIONS Arianna Silvestri, 2018).
The approach “Just say NO to drugs” failed to produce the expected results. The prohibitionist model of sanctioning drug users did not help decrease drug use or drug trade, however, on the other side, it significantly contributed to creating public health problems and increasing unproductive state expenses.
Contrary to drug decriminalization policies, repressive policies criminalizing possession for personal use and drug use fail to take into account the respect of basic human rights. States with humane policies place focus on social needs and offer different services for people who use drugs, ensure social inclusion and employment, increase access to treatment and re-socialization programs, decrease stigma and discrimination, as well as drug-related death cases.
In 2001, Portugal became the first country to decriminalize purchase, possession and use of all types of drugs in an amount equal to 10 daily doses, i.e. possession for personal use and drugs use were no longer integrated in the criminal legislation, hence, prison sentences related to these were removed. Instead of being arrested and in custody at a police station, people on whose possession was found the amount permitted for personal use were referred to a special commission within the Ministry of Health, composed of a legal advisor, doctor and social worker. The commission’s purpose was to educate and offer support on treatment, harm reduction and other services appropriate in the specific case.
In Portugal, when an individual uses, purchases or possesses not more than 10 daily doses of illegal substances (the amount differs depending on the type of substance), and the police has no reason to suspect drug trade or any evidence that this is in question, the officers only identify the individual, measures the substance, issues a report and schedule a meeting for the individual with the Commission for Dissuasion within the Ministry of Health.
The police then notifies the Commission of the case, and proposes another date for the individual to meet the Commission if he/she is unable to attend the first meeting. When an individual is caught with an amount exceeding the maximum limit, the case is processed through the system for criminal-legal prosecution, however the public prosecutor has the right to reject a case and refer the individual to the Commission for Dissuasion if determined that the amount was intended only for personal use only. In fact, flexibility on how authorities will act is integrated in the system itself in Portugal.
The Commission’s purpose is to inform people, dissuade them from using drugs and motivate them to seek treatment. When an individual attends the meeting scheduled with the Commission, they spend one to two hours talking with the members. During this time, without any coercion, the Commission must attempt to introduce proper actions in order to provide or improve the individual’s health and wellbeing. Commission members should reach out even to individuals who might never seek health, social or other type of support. This includes evaluation of their specific circumstances and most importantly, establishing a relation of trust powerful enough to encourage the individual to follow the Commission’s advice. The process takes place usually in the form of a detailed interview and a friendly but also authoritative approach. Depending on the individual assessment, the Commission members relay medical and other information simply and effectively, while simultaneously working on dissuading the individual from further harmful behaviour (GATEWAYS FROM CRIME TO HEALTH: THE PORTUGUESE DRUG COMMISSIONS, Arianna Silvestri, 2018).
The country’s approach to drugs and addiction remained identical even when the political party in power changed – regardless of the conservative state leaders who are expected to “declare war” on drugs. In time, the stability of this humane approach ensured bigger availability of different types of service: health, psychological, social, employment, housing and other state services.
The decriminalization of drug possession and personal use in Portugal resulted with many benefits, one of which is decreasing the overcrowding in prison institutions, a huge problem in our country as well. Improper practices of prosecution authorities who choose to misinterpret provisions of the Criminal Code and violate users’ rights, lead to another grave violation, i.e. the right to a humane and dignified life of convicts in prison institutions. Applying state resources towards access to treatment and support is much more efficient than financing the prosecution system in order to implement repressive policies with no effect in harm reduction.
Humane policies produce positive results. The levels of drug use in Portugal have been averaging below the European statistics for the last ten years. This is particularly the case with younger people: Portugal has the lowest drug use rate in Europe among the population aged 15 to 34 (EMCDDA (2020). Statistical Bulletin 2020 — prevalence of drug use).
Researchers also noticed a drop in the percentage of confirmed drug depended people referred to the Commission for Dissuasion, pointing to a general decrease in drug use (SICAD (2020). Statistical Bulletin 2018: Illicit Substances. p. 7).
According to a 2015 study, state expenses for drug use in Portugal dropped 12% from 2000 to 2004 and another 18% until 2010, i.e. there is a significant decrease in expenses on drug-related criminal procedures and the lost revenues of individuals serving prison sentences for these crimes (Gonçalves, R., Lourenço, A. and Silva, S. N. (2015). A social cost perspective in the wake of the Portuguese strategy for the fight against drugs. International Journal of Drug Policy 26 199–209).
Wasting precious resources on inefficient strategies based on forced drug dissuasion leaves little room for trust in the criminal system. Finances spent on implementation of repressive policies and punishing drug users would better serve when redirected towards implementation of rehabilitation and prevention programs. Continuing the failed “war” on drugs, particularly the prohibition of drug use, is not appropriate and prevents the system of criminal justice to realize its goals. This approach is ineffective, expensive and harms the already poor credibility in our judiciary institutions.