Richard is in Portugal on a study tour to investigate the way in which Portugal has reduced its heroin addicted population by implementing genuine drug law reform -- and it couldn’t be more different to Australia. Where our politicians frequently declare “war on drugs,” make promises to crack down on drug users and implement zero tolerance policies; Portugal treats individual drug use as a health issue - not a criminal one. Here are the top five things Richard has learnt so far.
1 / Changing the laws drives drug use down, not up
Our laws don’t work as a deterrent. The laws we have don’t stop people using drugs, they stop people seeking treatment. In Portugal, treating drug use as a health issue not a criminal one saw drug use go down, not up. This makes sense when we look at Australia where we have a zero tolerance policy, yet we have one of the highest rates of illegal drug use per capita in the world!
2 / People are having more honest conversations
After the change in approach in Portugal, people began having a more honest conversation drug use.
People take drugs for a reason, and it’s ridiculous that we continue to try to pretend that they don’t. People take them because they enjoy them or they get some perceived benefit from them. In our conversations we need to acknowledge that people are taking drugs for a reason, but we also need to talk about the costs involved - the risks of becoming dependent, the risk of overdose, blood borne diseases and other health impacts. In Portugal, a genuine converation has begun to emerge where young people can talk about the reasons why they are taking drugs and the risks associated with them can be discussed openly so that people can make sensible decisions about their health and their lives. That’s why we’ve seen drug use, and drug deaths, in Portugal amongst young people decline.
3 / It’s about more than changing the laws
It’s not as simple as just removing criminal penalties for drug use. In Iran, for example, there are very high penalties for drug use, yet there are high rates of intravenous drug use. In Sweden on the other hand, there are high penalties and low drug use. We see high drug use in countries that have the death penalty.
What this shows us is that changing the laws alone is not enough. We need to see that money reinvested in education, in health care and in prevention. Then we will see a decline in drug use.
4 / We need to Invest in Health Treatment and Support
In Portugal, instead of prosecuting individual drug users, the money that would be spent on law enforcement is being redirected into treatment. If the police catch you using drugs, rather than send you to court they will issue you with a treatment order. The individual appears before a panel who recommends a course of treatment, and access to treatment is guaranteed for the next day. This treatment panel also supports them with a range of other needs they may have arising from, and contributing to, their drug use - such as securing housing and employment.
5 / Australia is lagging behind
We must move on from this outdated and ineffective “war on drugs” approach. Drug use is a health issue. We need to get smarter about how we’re spending our money. We have a situation here in Australia where people who are seeking help sometimes have to wait months to get it. During that time, those people are still committing crimes to feed their habits. We need to make sure health care is readily accessible to the people who need it.
SAVE THE DATE: next Tuesday July 27th at 9:30pm Richard Di Natale will be appearing on a new TV discussion ‘Australians on Drugs’ on ABC2 at 9:30pm -- tune in!