‘It beats getting stoned on the street’: how Portugal decriminalised drugs – as seen from the safer consumption site

City of Porto

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‘It beats getting stoned on the street’: how Portugal decriminalised drugs – as seen from the safer consumption site

1 February 2024
Oliver Balch
The Guardian

aulo picks up a lighter from the table in front of him, holds it beneath the foil-encased bowl of his thin metal pipe for a few seconds, and then inhales. For a brief moment, he falls silent, head slumped forward. Then the 47-year-old is back to his usual chatty self, conversing with the seven other drug addicts who, like him, are making the most of their 30-minute slot at Porto’s new “shoot-up” centre. “It beats getting stoned on the street, where, you know, anyone can come along, kids or whatever,” he says. “Here, we can just do our thing and no one hassles us.”

Lack of interference is not the only reason that Paulo and 400 or so other regulars visit the centre. The government-funded service also provides them with clean needles, strips of aluminium foil, and other materials to facilitate their drug-taking and prevent infections.

The overarching ethos of the centre revolves around harm prevention. A list of rules by the entrance contains no strict injunctions; it simply invites users to be courteous and preferably not leave litter on the floor. Even the free sachets of citric acid, which addicts use to dissolve heroin or crack cocaine for injection, come with a health warning on the packaging: “Can damage the veins if used in excess.”

Housed in a nondescript portable cabin in Pasteleira, a low-income neighbourhood of Porto, the centre, which opened in August 2022, serves as a highly visible flagship of Portugal’s long-standing policy of drug decriminalisation. The scene is far from salubrious. Set beside the road on a patch of scrub, the temporary facility faces out to featureless blocks of social housing. Behind is a small encampment of makeshift tents – home to some of the centre’s users, 75% of whom are unhoused. Just up the hill, smartly dressed pupils file through the gates of the elite Lycée Français.

Yet the centre offers a rare ray of hope in the scourge of drug addiction, locally and perhaps globally. First, its target users are alive and, if not exactly well, then at least using safely. Three decades ago, it was a different story. Heroin addiction in Portugal affected an estimated one in every 100 adults, and death by overdose or drug-related disease was commonplace.