Letter: Portugal’s drug policy worked

A truly safe and accessible supply, and decriminalization have worked elsewhere and can work here

Portugal’s drug policy worked

Re: “Duncan council calls for radical change to Canada’s drug laws”

Please, Mayor Siebring and Councillor Manhas, consider the lessons learned by Portugal before you vote against decriminalizing drugs as a life-saving measure.

Twenty years ago, from what I’ve read, Portugal legalized possession of up to 10 days’ personal supply of any drug, though selling drugs remained illegal.

Also important, money saved from not arresting, prosecuting and jailing drug users was used to double the range of free and effective treatment and support services. Children and youth are educated to help prevent future addiction. All these things worked. Problematic heroin use was cut in half. Portugal has one of the lowest drug use rates in Europe. Drug-related street crime ceased.

Conservatives, like the chief of the Lisbon drugs squad, were initially dead-set against the policy change. They fully expected it would create even more addicts. But even conservative governments elected since then have kept the policies, because they work. Problem addicts were either on methadone, in treatment, or recovering, so they didn’t need to break into homes or businesses or assault people to fund their habits. The chief said it freed up police time and resources so they can do a better job on serious crime.

Here in B.C., people can die during the weeks it takes just to get into detox. Government-funded treatment programs, which might last six to 12 weeks, usually also have a months-long wait. Desperate families have spent life savings or taken loans to pay for private residential treatment programs where their loved one can get immediate treatment — at a cost that can exceed $10,000.

In Portugal, reportedly, access to treatment can happen the same day. And it’s free. Treatment can last a year and a half. For those who need more, therapeutic communities are also available, where addicts can live for several years if need be. There they learn to trust, learn to deal with the past trauma and anguish that drove many to seek a drugged peace, and learn to live again, free of drugs.

Portugal also helps recovered addicts find work, by giving a generous year-long tax break to employers who offer them a job. Those who need help to get training or find a home receive it.

If Canada did the same thing, we could greatly reduce street crime, and free up police to deal with major crimes. We could reduce wait times in our overburdened court system.

We could support young people to return to health and work, instead of living and dying on the streets. We could provide hope and help to the thousands of stressed families with a member suffering from addiction.

Many think it is only the people we see living on the street that use drugs, but that is the barest tip of the iceberg. There are accidental drug overdose deaths in every level of society. Drug use and overdose deaths skyrocketed during the pandemic. B.C. declared a drug overdose emergency six years ago, and 9,500 people — many of them young — have died of overdoses in the years since.

People in Portugal now agree that drug addicts are not criminals, but sick people who need help. Their policy is working.

Ours are not. We can and must do much better. A truly safe and accessible supply, and decriminalization have worked elsewhere and can work here.

Grace Golightly

North Cowichan