Author Archives: Zeb Holmes

About Zeb Holmes
Zeb Holmes is a journalist and paralegal working on claims for institutional abuse. He has a passion for social justice and criminal law reform, and is a member of the content team at Sydney Drug Lawyers.

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

This year Portugal commemorated the 15th anniversary of its 30/2000 law – the law that decriminalised the use of all drugs for personal use. The law states that the possession of small amounts of for personal use is no longer considered a crime, but a regulatory offence instead.

The reasons behind the move

Portugal suffered from a heroin-epidemic in the mid-1990s, before the new law came into effect. By 1999, nearly 1% of the population was addicted to heroin, and drug-related deaths from HIV were the highest in the European Union.

The number of people dying from overdoses and HIV transmissions via shared needles was on the rise, as were crime rates across the country.

The state of affairs led the government to initiate crisis talks, and ultimately form an anti-drug commission to tackle the problem. That commission recommended the introduction of a band new regime – one which treats drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal law problem, and within that paradigm focuses on education and treatment rather than punishment.

The new law

The new regime started by determining the average 10-day supply of drugs for personal use; whether cannabis, heroin, esctacy or any other prohibited drug.

It decreed that a person found in possession of less than a 10-day supply would be sent to a three-person ‘dissuasion panel’, typically made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker.

That panel could recommend treatment or, in some cases, a minor fine without a criminal record.

Change in perspective

One of 11 experts on the panel was Joao Goulão, a family physician from Faro, located on Portugal’s Algarve Coast. Mr Goulão has been the chief of Portugal’s national anti-drug program since 1997 and helped to shape the new law. He is now chairman of Portugal’s Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction.

“Drug users aren’t criminals, they’re sick,” Mr Goulão has remarked.

Drug manufacture, supply and importation

While habitual users are offered the support they need, drug manufacturers, suppliers and importers continue to face harsh penalties.

There are criminal sanctions for growing a small number of cannabis plants, all the way to severe penalties for suppliers and traffickers.

Results

Despite decriminalising personal drug possession, rates of drug use have not skyrocketed as many predicted.

As this chart shows, drug use increased slightly when measured in 2007 (a trend in line with other, similar countries), but fell thereafter.

Rates of drug use graph

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

By two out of three measures, adult drug use is now lower than it was in 2001, when the new regime was introduced.

“I think harm reduction is not giving up on people,” said Goulão. “I think it is respecting their timings and assuming that even if someone is still using drugs, that person deserves the investment of the state in order to have a better and longer life.”

The number of deaths from drug overdoses has fallen dramatically to just 3 for every million residents. The rates in other countries are 10.2 per million in the Netherlands to 44.6 per million in the U.K., all the way up to 126.8 per million in Estonia. The E.U. average is 17.3 per million.

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

One of the most startling trends in Portugal is the fall in deaths from HIV and AIDS. In 2001, the country’s drug using population was in the midst of a public health crisis, with rates of HIV and AIDS rapidly increasing.

The emphasis on harm reduction has been instrumental in reversing this trend. As depicted in the chart below, there has been a huge reduction in the number of drug users diagnosed with HIV and AIDS.

The rate of new HIV infection fell dramatically from 1,016 cases to only 56 in 2012.

HIV and AiDS with drug use graph

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

The Portugese experience demonstrates that decriminalisation does not have the disastrous consequences predicted by conservative detractors for the approach, many of whom have since changed their views.

As the Transform Drug Policy Institute says in its analysis of Portugal’s drug laws, “The reality is that Portugal’s drug situation has improved significantly in several key areas. Most notably, HIV infections and drug-related deaths have decreased, while the dramatic rise in use feared by some has failed to materialise.”

There is no reason other developed countries like Australia could not reap the same benefits.

ABC’s Ice Wars Documentary – Sensationalist Reporting Which Stigmatises Users

The ABC’s Ice Wars documentary purports to illustrate the realities of crystal methamphetamine – or ‘ice’ – use in Australia, but many have expressed concerns about the sensationalism of the programme and its negative portrayal of users.

An ‘Ice Epidemic’?

The first criticism of the documentary is that it exaggerates the impact of ice on society, claiming Australia is “under siege” by the increasing use of a drug that is “tearing at the social fabric” of the nation.

Fleshing out that criticism, drug experts including Dr Nicole Lee, who is an associate professor at the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University, point out that ice is just one of many forms of methamphetamine (or ‘meth’). They emphasise that there has been no overall increase in the use of meth over the past 20 years.

“In fact,” Dr Lee explains, “[the number] has come down, from a high of about four per cent in 1998, and it’s around about two per cent of the population now.”

It is estimated that 2.1% of Australians over the age of 14 have used meth in the last year, and about half of those prefer ice over the powdered form of the drug known as ‘speed’.

This means an estimated 1% of the Australians in that age bracket have used ice over the past year, which critics of the ABC programme suggest does not amount to the country being “under siege” by the drug.

An Addiction Epidemic?

Of the estimated 1% who have used ice over the past year, three-quarters used it less than 12 times during that period. Only 0.25% of the population used the drug at least once per month.

Like many other drug experts, Dr Lee suggests we treat habitual use as a health issue, rather than criminal law problem – an approach which has paid dividends abroad.

Ice-Fuelled Violence Epidemic?

While accepting the use of ice can lead to psychosis and increased aggression, critics of the ABC documentary accuse it of exaggerating the risk.

They point out that that 75% of people who regularly use methamphetamine never experience a psychotic experience, and the same percentage never become aggressive as a result of using the drug.

Obstacle to Reform

Media organisations can wield significant power when it comes to shaping public policy.

There are concerns that exaggerating the dangers and risks associated with the use of drugs will impede the formulation and implementation of policies which reduce harm to users and the community.

It is feared that by pointing the finger at ice and claiming it is “tearing at the social fabric” of society, the media makes it less likely that governments will implement meaningful reforms which, again, have proven in other countries to benefit both users and the general community.

A recent study by the Australian Journal of Psychiatry found that those who use methamphetamines respond at least as well to treatment programs as those who use other types of illegal drugs. Reporting which exaggerates the threat posed by illegal drugs can decrease the likelihood of funding for rehabilitative programs, and lead to an increased emphasis on punitive measures.

Effect of Stigmatisation

Portraying drug users as “the enemy’ and a danger to themselves and society has proven time and again to be counterproductive to rehabilitation.

Indeed, such negative stereotyping makes it less likely that habitual users will seek help to overcome their health problem, and can reduce their self-worth which can, in turn, isolate them from society and make the problem worse.

As Dr Lee points out, a compassionate and understanding approach more likely to reap results.

“Remember it’s not the whole story. And know the people who use methamphetamine and their families are, first and foremost, people. Compassion and a clear head is going to solve this problem. Not fear and stigma”, Dr Lee says.

“When the public come at the problem from compassion, and not fear and voyeurism, it is clear that investment in treatment and support provides far better economic, health and social outcomes than policing, courts and prisons.”

The UN Drugs Summit: A Wasted Opportunity

The UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) has once again refused to denounce the spectacular failure of the international War on Drugs. Many hoped that a shift of rhetoric was forthcoming, with the meeting brought forward from 2019 as a result of pleas by representatives of several member states, including the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico; nations where many die in the violent frontline of the drug war.

The last multinational drug debate was the 1998 UNGASS, which set a goal for a “drug-free world” by 2008, using the drug war model.

The results

The 1998 goal has clearly not been met, with the harm associated with drug prohibition increasing over the years.

1. Supply

The international drug war has not altered the supply of drugs. While cocaine supply has fallen, that decrease has been overshadowed by an increase in methamphetamine supply. The supply of cannabis and psychoactive drugs also continues to rise. The 2015 UN World Drug Report found that overall drug use and demand is stable around the world.

A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2013 used the US as an example, finding that despite efforts to limit the supply of illicit drugs, prices have fallen while the purity of the drugs has increased since 1990.

Researchers found that between 1990 and 2007, the price of heroin, cocaine and cannabis fell by 81%, 80% and 86% respectively, while average purity increased by 60%, 11% and 161%.

2. Proceeds of crime

Internationally, the illegal drug trade is larger than any other illegal activity, with a 2011 report by Global Financial Integrity estimating that illicit drugs create $320 billion for criminal organisations across the globe.

3. Imprisonment

The Brookings Institution has published a comparative study of counter-narcotics polices and their outcomes in various countries.

The Study outlined three different approaches:

  • Punishment – used in countries like Australia, the US and UK,
     
  • Depenalisation – used in Italy and Spain, which does not criminalise personal use for certain amounts, and
     
  • Decriminalisation – used in the Netherlands, which allows cannabis for personal use.
  • This Study found that the punishment model was a major reason for the explosion in US imprisonment rate from less than 50,000 in 1980 (at the beginning of the drug war) to 210,200 in 2015.

    Like the US, Australia is also suffering from over-populated prisons, many of them incarcerated for drug offences.

    4. Health outcomes

    A study titled “Global burden of disease attributable to illicit drug use and dependence” found that the global burden of illness due to amphetamine, cannabis, cocaine, and opioids (including heroin) increased by 52% between 1990 and 2010. UNODC figures suggest that there are now 27 million people worldwide suffering from some form of drug disorder.

    While this is not solely the result of drug policy, these numbers suggest that not nearly enough is being done to minimise harm associated with illegal drug use, with the primary focus being on punishing users. In fact, a 2013 Australian report found that the ratio of government drug-related spending was overwhelmingly highest for law enforcement (66%), then treatment (21%), prevention (9%) and harm reduction (2%).

    Michel Kazatchkine, a professor of medicine and former executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, has pointed to the disastrous results of drug enforcement policies on disease control. He criticised UNGASS for virtually ignoring the fact that nearly 2 million people who inject drugs around the world have HIV, and a whopping two-thirds are infected with hepatitis C.

    Law enforcement agents and policies are, in Kazatchkine’s view, “barriers to services”; standing in the way of users getting help. Kazatchkine sees prisons, the place where many users end up, as “high-risk environments for infectious disease transmissions.”

    5. Casualties

    Drug prohibition is a major factor in the 250,000 yearly overdoses from illicit drugs, as it leads to the use of deadly fillers and wildly fluctuating purity levels. Prohibition has also created dangerous ‘no go zones’ in many countries.

    In 2006, Mexican president Felipe Calderon began deploying federal military forces to capture and kill drug traffickers. This move saw the nation’s homicide rate quadruple from nine murders per 100,000 in 2005, to 22 murders per 100,000 in 2010. Between 2007 and 2014, more than 164,000 people were victims of homicide.

    Similar conflicts have played out in Columbia and Guatemala.

    The Summit

    Achieving consensus between many countries with different priorities and agendas is always going to be a difficult task.

    However, it was hope that the steadily declining crime and health outcomes created by the War on Drugs would be so great that agreement would be reached that strict prohibition has failed. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

    A preliminary agreement reached on the first day ignored the importance of harm minimisation, maintaining the prohibitionist framework which criminalises all drug use not for medical or scientific purposes.

    Criticism

    The Global Commission on Drug Policy, which unites international leaders to advocate for drug reform, declared itself “profoundly disappointed” by the failure of UNGASS 2016 to have the courage to strive for change. “The very bad news about UNGASS is that its official declaration reinforces the 1961, 1971 and 1988 Conventions as the cornerstone of the international drug control system,” said Ernesto Zedillo, President of Mexico from 1994-2000.

    This is despite overwhelming evidence that the current approach has failed. “The emphasis needs to be on helping people getting out of the problem of drug use rather than punishing them for being in it,” said Charles Gore, president of the World Hepatitis Alliance. Mr Gore was dismissive of the final document, saying, “It represents a tinkering around the edges more than a fundamental reshaping of where we need to get to as a world on drug policy.”

    UN’s role

    The UN cannot act as a world parliament or police – it does not have power to force member states to enact or enforce legislation.

    At the same time, many feel the UNGASS was expected properly examine the available evidence and make recommendations, if not reach agreements, for reform.

    They believe the organisation failed to do this, preferring to dance around the issues and keep member states happy. They feel the recent UNGASS was a wasted opportunity because no definitive statement of principles, no recommendations and no meaningful agreement was reached, despite overwhelming evidence of the current approach’s failure.

    The way forward for Australia

    Loiuse Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, believes the lack of leadership by the UN and other international bodies will lead countries to pursue their own decriminalisation and harm-management policies.

    Most Australians support some form of drug decriminalisation. Only 5% of Australians support a prison sentence for cannabis possession, with support for prison for ecstasy (14%), methamphetamine (21%) and heroin (24%) also relatively low.

    Many Australians agree with “The Economist”, which endorses the legalisation of cannabis because of the associated economic and social benefits, saying “Danger and harm are not in themselves a reason to make or keep things illegal.”

    Nick Clegg predicts that “Because the hardliners (Russia and China mainly) have been allowed to hijack this process, reformers will think, ‘To hell with the UN system, let’s just get on with our own experiment.'”

    Unfortunately, Australian politicians are hesitant to wind back prohibition, preferring to plough billions of taxpayer dollars into enforcement and incarceration, while spending relatively little on prevention and diversion.