Addicts face treatment rather than jail as Portugal decriminalises heroin

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The Independent Online

Portugal last week followed the example of Spain and Italy in decriminalising the use of drugs such as cannabis and heroin, enabling drug addicts to seek help instead of facing persecution as criminals.

Portugal last week followed the example of Spain and Italy in decriminalising the use of drugs such as cannabis and heroin, enabling drug addicts to seek help instead of facing persecution as criminals.

"The idea is to get away from punishment towards treatment," said Carlos Borges, a government policy spokesman. "We consider a drug-dependent person to be sick, not a criminal."

The decision taken by MPs on Thursday reflects less a liberalising impulse - the social policy instincts of Portugal's ruling socialists are fairly conservative - than a pragmatic response to the mounting problem of drug use, especially among the young.

Under the new law, drug users no longer face prison terms, and measures will be adopted to monitor addicts and make them attend counselling.

Police will report drug users to local authority commissions who will ensure the addict seeks treatment. Welfare payments will be channelled through counselling centres to addicts on condition they attend.

Previously, drug users and anyone caught possessing prohibited drugs for personal use faced up to one year in jail, though prison terms were rarely imposed.

Hard drug use has become a big social problem in the Iberian peninsula, the principal staging post for cannabis, cocaine and heroin entering Europe.

With the authorities intercepting less than 7 per cent of incoming traffic, vast quantities inevitably drop off in transit. Significantly, the only EU body based in the Portuguese capital is that responsible for drugs monitoring.

Local authorities, rather than state enforcement agencies, have led in the fight against drug abuse in both Portugal and Spain.

In Lisbon's old slum area of Casal Ventoso, taken over by drug dealers to form a notorious European black spot, the city council has made huge efforts to build rehabilitation centres and new housing.

In a similar shantytown on the southern fringes of Madrid that is a virtual drugs supermarket, the conservative regional government has pioneered medically-supervised drug rooms or "shooting galleries" where addicts can test the quality of their material and inject in hygienic conditions in the presence of doctors.

This, Spanish politicians argue, is the only way to save lives.

In Portugal, the main conservative opposition party, the Social Democrats, held back from criticising the new law, urging the government rather to call a referendum first. But Communist and other left-wing votes ensured victory for Antonio Guterres' Socialists, who are one seat short of a parliamentary majority.

A high proportion of prisoners in Portugal's jails are there for drug-related offences, but the number of those sentenced for possession or consumption is very low - fewer than 30, officials say.

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