The 10th National Conference on Drug Policies concluded
“It is crucial for decriminalization that the Health System be ready to receive drug-users”
This was stated by João Castel-Branco Goulão, Coordinator of the Portuguese Center for Drugs and Alcohol and who carried out the regulated decriminalization model which has a success in that country since 2001. Castel-Branco Goulão spoke at the closure of the 10th National Conference on Drug Policies which, organized by the civil association Intercambios, took place today in the National Senate.
In the same panel discussion, Ann Fordham, Director of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), a network of NGOs worldwide, referred to the drug policy debates in the international context.
(Buenos Aires, on 8th June, 2012) “It is crucial for the decriminalization of personal drug consumption that the Health System be ready to receive the flow of people who could need care” stated João Castel-Branco Goulão, Coordinator of the Portuguese Center for Drugs and Alcohol in the closure of the 10th National Conference on Drug Policies, which, organized by the Civil Association Intercambios, took place on June 7th, in the National Senate.
Castel-Branco Goulão, who carried out the regulated decriminalization model which has worked in Portugal since 2001, explained that one of the first consequences of decriminalization is the increased demand of drug users on Health System, who begin to ask for help when they do not feel persecuted or as though they have done something wrong. “When I began to work on this issue, more than twenty years ago, it was common that people wanted to give only their first name because people were really scared. Today, after ten years of decriminalization, they give their identification card without problems because they have the assurance that nobody will press charges” he asserted.
The 90s’: consumption increase
In Portugal, the concern for finding answers to drug-related problems began in the 90s´, when in that country “consumption increased exponentially, not only of marijuana but also of heroin. It was a very fast process and for the State it took a long time for us to find answers”, he said. The first policies came from the Ministry of Justice, whose criminal policies similar to those of Argentina: imprisonment, compulsory treatment or fines for first-time users. “Many times, imprisonment was a school of crime, people came out worse than when they entered the prison. And the imprisonment abuse did not improve the situation”, he stated.
From 1997 to1999, the budget and number of professionals dedicated to monitoring drug-users doubled but it remained. The State convened a commission of experts- integrated, among others, by João Castel-Branco Goulão- in order to develop a proposal. This proposal included a regulated decriminalization law, measures used to control supply and above all, new forms of care for demand. “We incorporated a diversity of treatments, introduced methadone as part of therapy and reversed discrimination programs for the labour situation of drug-addicted in treatment, among other policies”, explained the specialist.
João Castel-Branco Goulão related that “the consumption problem at this time was so important that there was not a Portuguese family who did not have a connection to the situation; it was a problem for all the social classes. This led to the approval of a common idea which is that ‘my son is not a criminal, he is a good child but he has a problem which needs attention’, and therefore the idea that it is necessary to decriminalize”.
2001: Improved access to treatment
The following statement on the Portuguese model is important: we decriminalized but we maintain the penalty in the administrative sphere. For example, a child is blocked by the police with substances for his personal use. The young person has to present himself to an administrative organization under the Health Ministry, which aims to identify the needs of people. Castel-Branco Goulão explained: “If he is a drug-addict, we try to see which treatment could facilitate his life; if he is a temporary user, we consider if there are other factors which could lead to problematic consumption. The person is not necessarily referred to a treatment center but more often to a community center, according to his needs.”
With this policy, Portugal managed to drastically decrease injecting drug use, to reduce drug-related violence and, in particular, improved access to Health services for those with problematic consumption. To conclude, the current President of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction pointed out that: “we do not establish a causal relationship between decriminalization and these results. What we can say is that it has not caused a negative impact; it introduced coherence in the system and we all feel much better working in this context, it is better for people”.
A worldwide challenge
In turn, Ann Fordham, Executive Director of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), referred to the challenge of the entire world which is to generate alternative policies to repression: “Many governments around the world face the same challenges that Argentina is dealing with now. One example which shows that the tone of the debate is changing is that, this year, for the first time, the Government of the United States admitted at the annual session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) of the United Nations in Vienna that “there has been an extreme confidence in the benefits of incarceration. This is clearly a sign of change” stated the specialist.
IDPC is a network of NGOs and professionals specialized in drug-related problems. It has eighty-eight members all around the world and its role is to promote an open-mind debate, based on scientific evidences, with a strong focus on reducing drug-related harm. Fordham raised that different positions exist on criminalizing personal consumption, “for example, Uruguay and Spain never criminalized the possession for personal use and other countries are changing and decriminalizing”.
Decriminalize is different to legalize
“Decriminalization is something very different from the legal regulation of the drug market.” clarified Fordham. “What Argentina is currently discussing is the decriminalization of possession for personal use.” She also stated that the key is the proportionality of criminal sentences, which distinguish micro-trafficking from more serious situations.
To conclude, the representative of IDPC emphasized that:” The overall evidence shows that continuing criminalizing drug users does not improve the situation. The Argentine approach has strong roots in the human rights perspective and the change in the law could make an important contribution to the International debate on drug policies.”