Among Portuguese adults, there are 3 drug overdose deaths for every million citizens. Comparable numbers in other countries range from 10.2 per million in the Netherlands, to 44.6 per million in the UK, all the way up to 126.8 per million in Estonia. The EU average is 17.3 per million1. In Australia, there are approximately 75 drug-induced deaths per million, of which 94% (70.5 per million) were accidental or suicidal overdoses2. In the USA, 45 people per million (14,000 per year) die from overdoses of prescription opioids alone3.
Portugal decriminalised the use of all drugs in 2001. They started treating the possession and use of small quantities of these drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one. That included everything from marijuana to heroin. Today the Portuguese police don’t arrest anyone found holding what is considered less than 10 days’ supply of an illicit drug: a gram of heroin, ecstasy or amphetamine; two grams of cocaine or 25 grams of cannabis. Instead, drug offenders receive a citation and are ordered to appear before ‘dissuasion panels’ made up of legal, social and psychological experts. Most cases are simply suspended; however, individuals who repeatedly come before the panels may be prescribed treatment, ranging from motivational counselling to opiate substitution therapy. Indeed, with the decriminalisation, there is less stigmatisation and problem users are more likely to seek help3.
Overdose deaths decreased 80% from 80 per year in 2001, when decriminalisation was enacted, to only 16 in 2012. In addition, new Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV) infections have also fallen precipitously, declining 94% from 1,016 in 2001 to only 56 in 20123. Although drugs are still illegal in Portugal and drug traffickers are still sent to gaol, the decriminalisation has led to a reduction in the number of people arrested and sent to court for drug offences has dropped 57% from over 14,000 to about 6,000. In addition, the proportion of drug-related offenders in the Portuguese prison population also declined from 44% in 1999 to about 21% in 20124.
Australia has one of the highest per capita consumption rates of illicit drugs in the western world. Australians spend over $7 billion a year on illicit drugs. Currently, the federal government spends over 70% of the budget allocated to illicit drugs on law enforcement at the expense of more cost-effective harm reduction measures5. Indeed, conservatives have generally fought tooth and nail against such an approach. This is perhaps epitomised by the appalling John Howard who when his Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy supported a scientific trial of prescription heroin in July 1997, Howard intervened personally to stop the trial on the grounds that the research would “send the wrong message”6. What Howard meant by that was that it would send the wrong message to his gullible supporters, who have a very simplistic understanding of public policy. However, despite the rhetoric for the gullible, even Howard realised that harm minimisation was the way to go. He began funding needle exchange programs although he never announced this to the public. Much better publicised was the diversion of drug users from the criminal justice system. These were not reconcilable with Howard’s professed ‘zero-tolerance’ stance7.
Australian drug policy is still mainly targeted towards law enforcement and ad-hoc funding for occasional initiatives. This needs to change and Portugal has shown most of the world how to tackle the drug problem, but most of the idiots spruiking for the ‘war on drugs’ are too dim to realise it or making too much money out of it.