- Sex & Drugs
- 13 Nov 23
Nuno Capaz, the Portuguese Ministry of Health official who runs the Dissuasion Commission in Lisbon, sets the record straight in a detailed Hot Press op-ed piece...
Over the past couple of months there’s been a concerted effort by prohibitionist Irish drug campaigners to discredit the Portuguese decriminalisation model, which appears to be what members of the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs had in mind when they made their recommendations last month.
Whilst offering little in the way of statistics or other hard evidence, it’s been suggested by the prohibitionists that the Portuguese model, which was introduced in 2001, has run into major difficulties with some stakeholders wanting to revert to a criminal justice-lead system.
Not so, say Nuno Capaz, the Portuguese Ministry of Health official who runs the Dissuasion Commission in Lisbon and was invited to present at the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs here.
Nuno was one of the people Hot Press consulted with in 2018 when we went to Portugal on a fact-finding mission, which produced the following in-depth article: https://www.hotpress.com/culture/how-to-end-irelands-drug-deaths-epidemic-22581588
Here's what Nuno has to say now in response to the disinformation that has been spread...
Setting The Record Straight On Drugs Use Decriminalisation In Portugal
In 2001 Portugal decriminalised the possession of illicit substances for personal usage. Although this was one of the corner stones of a very comprehensive change in our drug policy it was a simple legal change from a “criminal offence” to an “administrative offence”. The Portuguese legal framework already used these two different figures with very specific and clear rules. An “administrative offence procedure” does not incur in criminal sanctions and therefore the person doesn’t get a criminal record because of it. That was the goal we were aiming to achieve when we decriminalised, divert drug users from the judicial system. But we also wanted to divert drug users into the health care system. To achieve that we created the Dissuasion Commissions (administrative authorities empowered to apply administrative sanctions) under the Ministry of Health.
Simple change, immediate results!
Nevertheless, that idea didn’t fully materialise because the definition of what was considered for “personal usage” was indexed to a highly subjective threshold chart that tried to quantify what was the amount for “10 days’ supply” of every illicit substance. This is a classic situation where a good idea finds its difficulties when you try to implement it. From its inception a significant part of the users couldn’t access the diversion scheme provided by the dissuasion commission for the sole reason that they were caught with more than the amount stipulated by the threshold chart even though there was no other indicator of the crime of trafficking. The courts of law were still deciding procedures for the “crime of usage”.
Since the 1st of October, with the Law 55/2023 taking effect the “crime of usage” is no more. The charts still inform the police work, there are still some procedures that the police send to court because the amounts exceed the limits defined for “10 days’ supply” but courts only check if there’s any other indicator (surveillance materials, traffickers caught “red handed”, substance divided in individual doses, significant amounts of money, etc.) that might be used as proof against a potential drug dealer. All the usage cases are diverted now to the Dissuasion Commissions (either by the police forces or by a court of law) where the users can be assessed regarding the risk level associated with the substance that they are using as well as some other psycho-social issues.
The decriminalised model applied in Portugal is not only maintaining its generalised social support, but is also being upgraded and given more tools to be able to provide answers to a cohort of the demographics that is very difficult to access and to intervene with active users, not looking for help or support voluntarily.
It’s totally unrealistic to assume that a drug policy after more than two decades was a “bed of roses” were everything went according to plan and smoothly. Drug-related issues are very complex issues and there’s no “magic bullet” that will solve every problem at once and without its setbacks. Since 2001 we navigated through several governments, structural changes in the coordination structure, a major financial crisis, a global pandemic and naturally new trends and challenges regarding the substances used. One thing is clear, and no one can deny, there was always a constant and firm political support to this system and the Dissuasion Commission as a major player in the comprehensive drug policy we adopted in 2001.
We must bear in mind that in the mid-90s’ “drug-related issues” were the main concern of the Portuguese population. Open market scenes, huge overdose rate, uncontrollable spreading of infectious disease amongst injecting users, general lack of treatment accessibility and a very poorly developed harm reduction responses lead us to a situation where the government felt the need to act upon. And act upon seriously! Coming from a poor level of service provision, there was a major investment, not only budget-wise, but also in the investment in the human resources necessary to conduct and materialise a humane and holistic drug policy. It was a success! The “Portuguese experiment” turned into the “Portuguese model”!
In the late 2000’s “drug-related issues” had plummeted to the 12th concern in the ranking of the Portuguese population concerns. No government in the world spends the same amount of resources in addressing the main concern of the population they are chosen to serve as they do on the 12th, so it was only natural that some services felt some difficulties in obtaining the good result they were having. We were a victim of our own success.
Since 2001 the drug policy in Portugal has been looked upon as a case study from international players searching for some sort of inspiration, ideas, something to praise or something to pushback. My position was always very clear. We were never an “experiment”, and we were never a “model” also.
The change in our drug policy was a conscious move away from a prohibitionist paradigm and the serious commitment to try and deal with drug related issues as a health care issue, that’s a long way from an “experiment”. The successes we achieved with that conscious change of perspective shouldn’t be called a “model” either, just for the simple fact that it’s not something that can be replicated. It’s our drug policy, we evaluated the problems we had and used the “tools” we had to try and manage/solve those problems. Our reality cannot be modelled to others.
I’m proud to be a part of the drug policy team in Portugal since 2001, I’ve seen and heard a lot of different opinions and points of view. Occasionally people ask me for advice and my answer is invariably … I don’t give advice!
I do my work and I try to do it the best I can with my abilities. Probably the only thing I dislike as much as people asking me for advice is debating statistical data. Converting people and their problems in numbers is a hard task and in the end the numbers can be read in totally opposite ways!
That said, I have been asked to tell this story on a number of occasions over the years in Ireland and I have visited, many times the ‘green paradise’, as my then six-year old son Max called Ireland on one trip to Kerry. So, having a strong bind with my Irish friends, I’ll make an exception, and offer some general policy advice:
Avoid setting, your new health approach, up to fail.
• Avoid overly complicated systems that expect police, health professionals and people who use drugs to jump through complex ‘hoops’.
• Don’t go for half-measures. Divert people found in possession of drugs for personal use away from the criminal justice system each and every occasion.
• Avoid unnecessary expense – yes this will need more investment, but unlike Portugal when we set out, Ireland already invests considerably in drug treatment and rehabilitation. Alongside investing more, look at how your existing system can adapt.
• Keep political focus on the issue – drug use policy requires consistent political leadership.
Be brave, implement the health led approach as soon as possible, the world won’t end as some people fear. Like Portugal, Ireland could see overdose rates reduce, blood borne virus rates reduce, less drug related harms and more people recover from problematic drug use.
If you are still unsure, come and see for yourself. Talk with people. The nice weather, good food and humane drug policy is here for you to see!
- Sex & Drugs
- 24 Nov 22