Net harm from drug use has plummeted since Portugal changed the way it tackles the problem, writes Angelo Pricolo

On a rainy night in Sydney this week one man representing a different drug philosophy drew a huge crowd at St Stephen’s Uniting Church. More than 1000 people, most not part of the Drug and Alcohol sector, came to listen to Dr Manuel Cardoso, a key architect of Portugal’s 2001 reformed drug policy.

Dr Cardoso, a keynote speaker at The Network of Alcohol and Other Drug Agencies (NADA) Conference, took the time to share his experience at the imposing venue. It centred around the decision in Portugal to decriminalise the use, possession and acquisition of all illicit drugs from 1 July 2001.

He explained that the aim was to introduce humane, evidence-based policy by treating drug use as a health and social issue rather than a criminal one.

Now in Portugal when someone is found with a small amount of a drug, they don’t get a criminal record. Instead they are referred to a “dissuasion panel’ or treatment service.

Since reforming its drug policy, Portugal has seen a reduction in:

  •             Overdose deaths
  •             Problematic drug use
  •             Drug-related harms
  •             Drug-related HIV
  •             Burden on the criminal justice system
  •             Social costs of responding to drugs

Meanwhile there has been an increase in:

  •             Treatment access
  •             Employment assistance

Since reforming its policy in 2001, Portugal’s annual overdose death rate has dropped to 0.35 per 100,000 people. In Australia our overdose death rate is more than twenty times higher than that, a figure that is rising every year.

At the start of 2000 Portugal had 1600 annual cases of drug-related HIV. Last year that number was just 30.

Other Australian advocates of drug reform also joined Dr Cardoso, and they presented their experiences.

Dr Manuel Cardoso and Angelo Pricolo.

Dr Manuel Cardoso and Angelo Pricolo.

Emeritus Professor Geoff Gallop, former WA premier, spoke of his time in office in WA. He said people knocking on his door with policy ideas facilitated the changes he oversaw in drug policy. He stressed the importance of knocking on politicians doors and not underestimating the impact this has.

Dr Marianne Jauncey, the medical director at the MSIC in Sydney has been a key advisor to the campaign on modernising drug policy in NSW and the ACT. She was also joined by Will Tregoning , founder and director of Unharm, a campaigning organisation that aims to make drug use as positive, ethical and safe as it can be.

They were both moved, as we all were, by one woman’s account of the needless and devastating loss of her son to a drug overdose more than 20 years ago. She recounted how police hindered health workers as her son lay dying and even denied her family access to his room where he lay unconscious.

She continues to advocate for reform but the frustration of years of sharing her experience was evident for all to see.

Drug law reform is starting to happen across the world. 24 countries outside Australia have a form of decriminalisation. Ireland is likely to follow shortly and Norway plans to introduce a version of the Portuguese model.

Many feared that decriminalisation would lead to increased drug use in Portugal. In fact net harm has reduced dramatically, with use of cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines and heroin all significantly lower.

Portuguese police say that post reform they have been able to refocus their attention on the upper end of the market.

“Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalise use of drugs and, thereby, reduce incarceration” World Health Organisation.

Thank you to The Uniting Church for providing the venue and much of the information contained in this article. Most of all thank you for promoting the humane policy that Dr Cardoso’s Portugal has implemented.

Angelo Pricolo, former National Councillor and Harm Minimisation Pharmacist, is pictured here in Sydney with Dr Manuel Cardoso.