By Emily Woodford
There are many things that could come to your mind when you think of Portugal. It could be the never ending landscapes or the beaches that seem to be straight out of a tourism brochure. Maybe it’s their musical language or maybe it’s their perfectly charcoaled cuisine, but I can almost guarantee it’s not their revolutionary approach to reducing drug abuse.
In the early 2000s, a little over a decade ago, Portugal was in the midst of a serious problem. A problem not too dissimilar to that which faces Australia today. While we’ve all heard over and over again about Australia’s tumultuous relationship with Ice, Portugal’s drug of choice was heroin. With estimates of more than 100, 000 users throughout the country, heroin and intravenous drug abuse brought a myriad of problems for the people of Portugal. Predominantly these problems included an incredibly high rate of drug related deaths throughout the region and a devastating number of newly diagnosed HIV cases being recorded each year. The classic law enforcement approach to drug abuse just wasn’t cutting it in Portugal. Something needed to change. Something needed to be done. Portugal needed to attempt a harm reduction approach.
The harm reduction approach adopted by Portugal took a completely different stance to the law enforcement approach we’re all familiar with. Portugal would no longer prosecute individuals for using or possessing drugs. Instead of fierce punishment, Portugal would reach out and offer help to their most vulnerable citizens. Community education programs began operating, ensuring that the Portuguese people had a deep understanding of the issues facing those in their community as well as a deep understanding of the dangers that come along with drug abuse. Specialised treatment centres rolled out across the country and treatment programs were made readily available to everyone who needed to make use of them. Importantly, Portugal didn’t end the care when the treatment programs were completed. A phase of social reintegration was implemented. Through this the government ensured that individuals who had completed treatment programs were supported in their search for housing, training and employment.
The result of these changes was astounding. The struggle of drug abuse was destigmatised throughout the community. The number of individuals seeking help from specialised treatment facilities rose drastically, while the rates of drug use among adolescents and problematic users fell. The number of HIV cases being diagnosed each year fell by 17%. Remarkably, the number of drug related deaths across Portugal decreased. The fresh approach had worked. The programs were a success. The communities were safe and healthy. Portugal’s harm reduction approach had achieved everything it had set out to accomplish.
For Australia, the results of Portugal’s approach offer more questions than answers. We hear about our Ice epidemic almost daily. We hear about it from our politicians, from our news outlets, from our colleagues and from our friends. The conversation surrounding our problem has become so commonplace that it’s nearly small talk, but we don’t talk about solutions. We don’t discuss what could work. We don’t discuss what has worked. It’s time that Australia gave proper consideration to Portugal’s approach and to all that Portugal has accomplished. It’s time that Australia followed in the footsteps of those who have fought our battles before us, and those who have won. As a country are we failing to acknowledge a real, viable option to tackling drug abuse? Are we fearful of change or of trying something different? Or would we rather turn a blind eye on those who need our help?