Portugal: Drug Money
This blog post contains some mention of legal situations, corrupt corporations , a dysfunctional government system, and extreme stubbornness. However, do not let this dissuade even the most jaded of you. Please remember, this is Portugal, so there is hope. Just in case, I have added in some idyllic pictures of Portugal and nearby areas throughout, just in case you, like I, sometimes need a political reprieve. Enjoy!
P.S. If you click on the pictures, they open in better quality.
Drugs have been a touchy topic with societies long before the phrase “opium epidemic” ever hit the streets in the US. Some ancient cultures used hallucinogenic drugs to feel closer to their deities while others used more calming drugs as sort of collective pastime bringing people together and still other wielded now-illicit substances as herbal remedies. Due to these types of tradition, criminalization legislation was not originally thought of. Opioids used to be prescribed liberally as sleeping drops, cough syrup, and more, tobacco used to be deemed a cure for anxiety and stress, and even the more modern drugs such as methamphetamines were originally used as mental stimulants for long or depressing military missions. Supposedly, due to all these previous “positive” effects, litigation criminalizing or penalizing (taxes, age restrictions) them were long-fought and vicious. In reality, huge shadowy companies often stood in the backgrounds, defending dangerous products for the sake of profit.
(Too close to home? Picture one, as promised.)
In Portugal, the situation was slightly different. While the underlying presence of drug usage and addiction existed, there was a far smaller market for them and therefore a far smaller political and corporate presence in the country. However, at the beginning of the 19th century, the stage began to be set for disaster. An authoritarian regime came into power in 1933 and began to reduce accessibility to information from other countries. At the same time, they weakened the education system, creating an uninformed population unprepared for the flood of drugs that crashed over them after the regime fell in 1974. Do to the nonexistence of an educated populace, unhealthy drug use washed over the populace, drowning them with overexposure to the products as foreign influences increased their presence in the area. For example, between then and the 80’s, heroin use went from next to nothing to one in every ten people being users. And thus, the crisis began.
Nearly every family had at least one member affected by this epidemic of drug misuse. The universal scale of the epidemic created panic, and the government became determined to find a solution, no matter how unconventional. They began with the now well-known ‘war-on-drugs’ approach. And failed miserably. The government tried upping the ante, practically demonizing users and distributers; that attempt went just as poorly. Desperate, they began searching for alternative solutions.
Meanwhile, local individuals pioneered significant discoveries in what works and what doesn’t on the small, community scale. Methadone therapy to help wean heroin addicts was trialed in one town (some success). Another tested how effective was quitting cold turkey combined with psychotherapy (not very). In Lisbon, one mighty female pharmacist named Odette Ferreira founded what Suzanna Ferreira (no relation) of the website The Guardian calls an “unofficial needle sharing programme” in an effort to relieve the Aids crisis (successful). For this, Odette Ferreira received death threats from both politicians and dealers alike. When hassled by dealers while on the job, The Guardian reports Odette Ferreira as snapping back, “‘Don’t mess with me. You do your job, and I’ll do mine.’” This powerful woman eventually worked her way into leading Portugal’s and the world’s first national needle-exchange program.
And yet, while these efforts are a start, they do not address the core issue—they even go so far as to directly defying the public, criminal image the government is attempting to force upon users. The successful treatments are being found not to be ostracism and solitude, but openness, community/family support, and the professional and user’s acknowledgement of a willingness and even eagerness to be treated. Go figure: people whose lives are being wrecked by addiction oftentimes want to be treated. And this epiphany is what eventually brought about the finalized version of the government’s plan to address the situation. Essentially, the law decriminalized possession of drugs. This decriminalization is different, however, from legalization. If a person is found with a user’s quantity of the substance, they will be prescribed to mandatory treatment, but not incarcerated. Dealers are still prosecuted. However, this governmental effort only succeeded thanks to its combination with a widespread campaign attempting to change the mindset of the public from user=criminal to user=someone who needs help and support of others.
This treatment plan rather than prison not only helps people on the path to getting clean, but also saves vast amounts of money for the government. Incarcerating a person is expensive; treating a person is far more cost effective in the short term and long. Some of the extra money then gets cycled back into the treatment program, allowing for more and better facilities, medical professionals, and trial programs for the public. So, if you ever get truly down thinking about government stagnation or the difficulty of progressing legislation through the system, just remember, the moment it looks like all has been lost, that is the moment when something radically innovative has the most potential to happen.