Theresa May and Drug Decriminalisation

By Derek Van de Ven

Theresa May, the Home Secretary has called for a study on the effects of drug decriminalization in Portugal and other countries. She rejected both the Home Affairs Select Committee recommendation for a Royal Commission to examine drug laws, and also advice from the UK Drug Policy Agency on relaxing current legislation. So, yet again, we don’t know how much Theresa May will change about British policy on drugs, but she is right to investigate the benefits of decriminalisation.

Drug decriminalization has been bouncing around British politics for a while. The Green Party fully supports treating substance abusers as patients not criminals, and the ambiguous Lib Dems fully support the idea of a royal commission. The Home Affairs Select Committee has been investigating decriminalisation for over a year, recognizing the good effects it has had, and that drugs and drug related issues in the UK are a big problem. They sent a team to Portugal, a country which decriminalised – not legalised – all substances in 2001.

In Portugal, the cultivation, selling and trafficking of drugs is still a criminal offense. The possession of an amount of drugs equal to enough to satisfy ten days usage, with authorization, is not followed by prosecution. The individual in question agrees to speak to a “dissuasion commission.” The commission is made up of an attorney, a psychiatrist and a social worker, who will establish if the person is an addict or recreational user, and give the user a choice of treatment, and if not, a fine or community service is given. If they go through the extensive treatment process and come out clean, nothing goes on their criminal record. The committee can impose sanctions on the individual, such as a travel ban or the withdrawal of a license for professional purposes. The process of reintegration and rehabilitation is fully supported by Portugal’s Health and Interior ministries, who provide funding, personnel and even benefits for individuals needing employment or housing. There are free consultation and detoxification centres all around the country, addicts can ask to be given substitution substances, and dirty needles can be traded in for clean ones.

State intervention with drugs has risen dramatically since the laws were introduced – only this time it is designed to stop people using drugs and mitigate the risks users pose to themselves and others. The idea is not to stop drug use altogether, but minimize negative consequences. Dealers and traffickers, those who are involved in the wider organized crime around drugs, are the ones treated as criminals.

The new laws have turned around a worsening STD crisis in Portugal, and also considerably decreased drug use rates. The number of addicts has halved, and deaths from overdoses have vastly decreased.  HIV infection among substance abusers had dropped 30% – showing that the main aim of the legislation, to combat HIV, has been successful. The number of people in treatment for addiction has increased by a third, due to the decreased stigma around drugs more people are seeking help. Also, the amount of deaths from overdoses has dropped from 400 to 290 annually. The justice system workload has vastly decreased, as crimes relating to drugs have dropped from 14,000 a year in 2000 to 5,000 in 2009. Those who get out of hand are offered free and unlimited help from the state, and more and more people are getting out of drugs and not catching diseases transferred using drugs.

Portugal’s main aims have been achieved, and it’s obvious that the UK can benefit from lessons learned from Lisbon. Cities like Glasgow struggle with a homelessness and crime problem largely linked to drugs, among other things. Cocaine use in the UK is one of the highest in the world. The stigma relating to drugs is another big thing that has been targeted in Portugal and something that needs to be tackled in the UK. It’s very hard to get a job if an employer knows you have an addiction problem. We need to accept that people are always going to take drugs, and that is not necessarily a moral problem. People need to know how to do it safely and not endanger others around them. If they seek help for their problem, it should be freely available, and it should not affect other areas of their lives. The Portuguese system ensures people who want help, seek it, and its results show that it’s getting people out of addiction. The Home Affairs Select Committee and other specialist groups are clearly in favour of learning about other systems and adopting the successful measures. It’s time the Home Secretary put aside outdated views and did what is in the national interest


One Response to Theresa May and Drug Decriminalisation

  1. Rob Ford says:

    I agree with the majority of what Portugal does in relation to this, I wonder if the author has any opinion on adopting a mix of the Netherlands hard and soft drug legislation and the portuguese method?

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