Why Europe Is Exploring Drug Decriminalization

Fourteen years in, Portugal’s strategy of treating overdoses as a health issue could serve as a blueprint for other countries.
(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Aug 24, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Fourteen years ago, fed up with the losing fight against overdose deaths and the rising prevalence of HIV/AIDS, Portugal embarked on a bold experiment by decriminalizing all drugs and taking a public health approach to illegal drug use. It now has the second-lowest number of drug-induced deaths in all of Europe and has seen a steady decrease in the number of newly diagnosed HIV and AIDS patients. Other countries are looking to Portugal’s success. Chief among them is Ireland, which is inching toward the notion that drug abuse should be handled as a public health rather than a criminal justice issue.

In late July, Minister of State for the National Drugs Strategy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin invited representatives from regional drug and alcohol task forces to a roundtable discussion in Dublin on a possible move toward Portugal-style drug policy. The meeting produced wide consensus on the decriminalization of all drugs, according to The Irish Times. Ó Ríordáin is particularly interested in diverting funding for the prosecution and incarceration of drug users to rehabilitation programs.

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“[Decriminalization] can’t happen by itself,” Ó Ríordáin, who was appointed in May, told The Irish Times. “There has to be a continuum of care. There has to be an understanding around supports and resources and counseling and all those different things.”

One tangible outcome Ó Ríordáin would like to see is the introduction of “consumption rooms” staffed with public health workers, where intravenous drug users can safely use drugs such as heroin and access clean needles. Portugal first established a consumption room in a facility near a health center and a police department in Lisbon in 2014.

Ireland’s legislative Committee on Justice, Defence, and Equality sent some of its members to Lisbon in June to learn more about the 15-year experiment with decriminalization. The delegation found a dramatic drop in the number of HIV/AIDS cases, a decrease in drug-related crime, and no increase in drug use. Predictions that Portugal would become a destination for drug tourists, the committee members wrote in their report from the trip, haven’t come true. Since the report’s release, the committee has invited comments on decriminalization from the public and expects to issue recommendations in October for how Ireland should move forward.

Drug-induced deaths have been on the rise in Ireland since 2003, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Needle and syringe exchange programs have been steadily phased in since 1989 in an effort to stem HIV/AIDS among intravenous drug users, with reductions in the prevalence of HIV similar to those in Portugal.

Peter McVerry, a pastor who has worked with the homeless in Ireland for 35 years, has submitted comments to the Justice Committee in support of moving toward the Portugal model. “The enormous cost of arresting and prosecuting people for possession of drugs for personal use over the past 30 to 40 years has been a total waste of money,” McVerry told The Irish Times.