The Associated Free Press

LISBON — Health experts in Portugal claim that Portugal's decision 10 years ago to decriminalise drug use and treat dependent users rather than punishing them is an experiment that has worked.

"There is no doubt that the phenomenon of addiction is in decline in Portugal," said Joao Goulao, President of the Institute of Drugs and Drugs Addiction, a press conference to mark the 10th anniversary of the law. The number of dependent users considered "problematic" -- those who repeatedly use "hard" drugs and intravenous users -- had fallen by half since the early 1990s, when the figure was estimated at around 100,000 people, Goulao said. Other factors had also played their part however, Goulao, a medical doctor added.

"This development can not only be attributed to decriminalisation but to a confluence of treatment and risk reduction policies."

Portugal's holistic approach had also led to a "spectacular" reduction in the number of infections among intravenous users and a significant drop in drug-related crimes, he added. A law that became active on July 1, 2001 did not legalise drug use, but forced users caught with banned substances to appear in front of special addiction panels rather than in a criminal court.

The panels composed of psychologists, judges and social workers recommended action based on the specifics of each case. Since then, government panels have recommended a response based largely on whether the individual is an occasional drug user or an addict. Of the nearly 40,000 people currently being treated, "the vast majority of problematic users are today supported by a system that does not treat them as delinquents but as sick people," Goulao said.

In a report published in June 2011, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) said Portugal had dealt with this issue "in a pragmatic and innovative way." Drug use statistics in Portugal are generally "below the European average and much lower than its only European neighbour, Spain," the report also said. "The changes that were made in Portugal provide an interesting before-and-after study on the possible effects of decriminalisation," EMCDDA said.

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