Tag Archives: drugs

Drugs: The Portuguese Approach

Should drug abuse policy be *primarily* approached as a public health concern instead of an issue of criminality?


To check out the concept it greater detail: The Effects of Decriminalization of Drug Use in Portugal[529Kb PDF].

Cheers, Spiegel, for a refreshing dose of perspective (below) …


03/27/2013 11:32 AM

‘This Is Working’

Portugal, 12 Years after Decriminalizing Drugs

By Wiebke Hollersen

Twelve years ago, Portugal eliminated criminal penalties for drug users. Since then, those caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin go unindicted and possession is a misdemeanor on par with illegal parking. Experts are pleased with the results.

Before he got involved in the global war on drugs, João Goulão was a family physician with his own practice in Faro, on Portugal’s Algarve coast. Arriving in his small office in Lisbon, the 58-year-old tosses his jacket aside, leaving his shirt collar crooked. He looks a little tired from the many trips he’s taken lately — the world wants to know exactly how the experiment in Portugal is going. Goulão is no longer able to accept all the invitations he receives. He adds his latest piece of mail to the mountain of papers on his desk.

From this office, where the air conditioning stopped working this morning, Goulão keeps watch over one of the world’s largest experiments in drug policy.

One gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, 25 grams of marijuana leaves or five grams of hashish: These are the drug quantities one can legally purchase and possess in Portugal, carrying them through the streets of Lisbon in a pants pocket, say, without fear of repercussion. MDMA — the active ingredient in ecstasy — and amphetamines — including speed and meth — can also be possessed in amounts up to one gram. That’s roughly enough of each of these drugs to last 10 days.

These are the amounts listed in a table appended to Portugal’s Law 30/2000. Goulão participated in creating this law, which has put his country at the forefront of experimental approaches to drug control. Portugal paved a new path when it decided to decriminalize drugs of all kinds.

“We figured perhaps this way we would be better able get things under control,” Goulão explains. “Criminalization certainly wasn’t working all that well.”

Much the Same as a Parking Violation

As part of its war on drugs, Portugal has stopped prosecuting users. The substances listed in the Law 30/2000 table are still illegal in Portugal — “Otherwise we would have gotten into trouble with the UN,” Goulão explains — but using these drugs is nothing more than a misdemeanor, much the same as a parking violation.

Why set the limits on these drugs at 10 days’ worth of use, though?

“Well, it’s a limit, which by its nature is arbitrary,” Goulão says. Now the head of Portugal’s national anti-drug program and an important figure in Portuguese health policy, he still talks like an easygoing family doctor. Arrayed on Goulão’s windowsill are photographs, including one of him with Richard Branson, the British billionaire and hot air balloon operator. Another shows Goulão with the king of Spain. Both these men have received personal briefings on Portugal’s new drug program from Goulão.

“At the point when we designed the law, we had hardly any data to draw on,” Goulão relates. “We weren’t the least bit certain this would work.”

The question at stake: How can a government keep its citizens from taking dangerous drugs? One way is to crack down on those who provide the drugs — the cartels, the middle men and the street dealers. Another approach is to focus on the customers — arresting them, trying them and imprisoning them. Legal prosecution — as both a control mechanism and a deterrent — is the chosen approach for most governments.

Giving Up on the Idea of a Drug-Free World

“It’s important that we prevent people from buying drugs, and taking drugs, using every method at our disposal,” says Manuel Pinto Coelho, 64, the last great opponent of Goulão’s experiment. Pinto Coelho wants his country to return to normalcy, in the form of the tough war on drugs that much of the rest of the world conducts.

Pinto Coelho is a doctor too. He has run rehab centers and written books about addiction. Now he’s at odds with former colleagues and with “the system,” as he says.

His greatest concern is that his country has given up on the idea of a drug-free world. How, Pinto Coelho asks, is it possible to keep young people away from drugs, when everyone knows exactly how many pills can legally be carried around? He still believes deterrents are the best form of prevention and that cold turkey withdrawal is the best treatment method. He is also fighting the extensive methadone program Portugal began as part of its drug policy reform, which now provides tens of thousands of heroin addicts with this substitute drug.

These days, Pinto Coelho earns his living running diet clinics, but he spends his evenings writing letters and drafting presentations on his country’s “absurd drug experiment.” He travels to symposiums to warn the rest of the world of its dangers. At home in Portugal, his critical perspective has made him an outsider, but he says he’s been well received abroad. As if offering proof, he shows a fact sheet issued by the United States Office of National Drug Control Policy, a brief and skeptically worded report on the Portuguese experiment.

The Freedom that Overwhelmed the Country

When João Goulão wants to explain why it is Portugal in particular that came up with the idea to stop prosecuting drug users, he starts with the country’s Carnation Revolution.

In 1974, Portugal broke free from nearly 50 years of military dictatorship, a political shift symbolized by the carnations soldiers stuck in the muzzles of their rifles.”Suddenly, the drugs were there,” Goulão says, as Portuguese returning from the country’s overseas colonies brought marijuana with them. Goulão, too, says he smoked pot back then. He was in his early twenties and “drugs promised us freedom.”

But it was a freedom that soon overwhelmed the country. When Goulão established his doctor’s practice in Faro, he soon found himself approached by parents whose children were no longer just smoking joints, but had moved on to heroin. Sometimes the children came to him as well, and Goulão had no idea how to treat them. When the first state-run rehab clinic opened in Lisbon, Goulão attended a training course there.

At that point, he says, the heroin epidemic was just beginning.

In the 1980s, cheap heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan began flooding Europe. Portugal was not the only country affected, but Goulão says his nation was hit particularly hard, because people here had little idea how to handle drugs. “We were naïve,” he says.

The number of people taking illegal drugs in Portugal was low compared with other countries, but of those who did consume drugs, an unusually high number of them fell into the category that specialists in this field refer to as “problem drug users.”

From the pile of papers on his desk, Goulão unearths a copy of a speech he recently gave in Paris. Flipping through it, he finds the figure he’s looking for: 100,000. This is the number of severely drug-addicted people in Portugal at the height of the epidemic, in the mid-1990s. Portugal’s total population at the time was just under 10 million. The number of drug addicts who became infected with HIV was also considerably higher than in most other countries.

A drug slum formed in Lisbon, at the edge of a neighborhood known as Casal Ventoso. Here junkies slept in shacks or in the garbage, in extremely poor conditions. “They shot up on the street, and they died on the street,” Goulão says. Anyone in Portugal could observe this phenomenon — on TV, in newspaper pictures or even from the nearby highway.

‘Drug Users Aren’t Criminals, They’re Sick’

These were the conditions in the country at the point when the Portuguese government convened an anti-drug commission composed of 11 experts, including Goulão. Most of the members of the commission were not politicians. “Drug users aren’t criminals, they’re sick,” Goulão says. Not everyone agrees — Pinto Coelho, for example. But the anti-drug commission quickly agreed on this position, which formed the basis for Portugal’s experiment in dealing with drug users without dealing in deterrents. Goulão repeats that statement often, as do members of his staff within the anti-drug program, as well as doctors at state-run drug clinics. More surprising is that a Lisbon police commissioner, whose officers spend their days searching for drugs, says it too.

The logical extension of this statement is that people who are not criminals should not be treated as criminals. They should not be arrested, put on trial or thrown in jail. The punishment for drug possession in Portugal prior to decriminalization was up to a year in prison.

The Portuguese experiment has been in action since Law 30/2000 went into effect nearly 12 years ago, and Goulão’s staff is currently calculating how much money the country’s judicial system has saved, in its courts and prisons, now that it no longer has to process individuals the police catch with a few grams of drugs.

“The police still search people for drugs,” Goulão points out. Hashish, cocaine, ecstasy — Portuguese police still seize and destroy all these substances.

Before doing so, though, they first weigh the drugs and consult the official table with the list of 10-day limits. Anyone possessing drugs in excess of these amounts is treated as a dealer and charged in court. Anyone with less than the limit is told to report to a body known as a “warning commission on drug addiction” within the next 72 hours.

The Second Time Brings Consequences

In Lisbon, for example, the local drug addiction commission is housed on the first floor of an unremarkable office building. The idea is that no one should feel uncomfortable about being seen here. A 19-year-old in a white polo shirt waits in one room. Police caught him over the weekend with about a gram of hashish. A social worker has already questioned him for half an hour and learned that he attended vocational training at an agricultural school, lives with his parents and smokes pot now and then. This was the first time he was caught in possession of drugs.

“Social user, no risk factors present,” the social worker notes.

Next, a psychologist and a lawyer speak to the young man. They want to know if he’s aware of the dangers of cannabis.

“Yeah, yeah, from school,” he says. “We had a class on prevention.”

As long as he isn’t caught again within the next three months, his case will be closed. “We won’t inform anyone that you were here and this won’t go on your record,” the lawyer explains. “But if it happens a second time, there are serious consequences.”

But later, asked to explain these consequences in more detail, nothing comes to her mind that sounds particularly serious. A couple days of community service, perhaps. The commission can also impose fines, but the lawyer says it doesn’t like to do so for teenagers. The fines are likewise not intended for people the commission determines to be addicts — they’re already paying to maintain their habit. “Our most important duty is to invite people to participate in rehab,” she explains. Lisbon police send around 1,500 people to the commission each year, which averages out to less than five a day. Seventy percent of these cases concern marijuana. Those who fail to turn up receive a couple of reminders, but coercion is not an intended part of this system.

Decriminalization, Not Legalization

Warnings, reminders and invitations to rehab — it seems Portugal’s war on drugs is a gentle one. “Humanistic and pragmatic” is how João Goulão describes the new program. It is based on decriminalization, which should not be confused with legalization. Portugal considered that path too, but ultimately decided not to take things quite that far.

When Portugal’s parliament was debating the proposed Law 30/2000, representatives of right-wing parties declared that planes would start arriving in the country daily, full of people looking for an easy opportunity to pump themselves full of drugs. Our entire country will become a drug-ridden slum, these parties said. The left-wing parties in parliament held a majority, though.

Goulão sits in his office and pages through charts, tables and graphs that are just some of the great quantity of data his team has collected over the years.

The data show, among other things, that the number of adults in Portugal who have at some point taken illegal drugs is rising. At the same time, though, the number of teenagers who have at some point taken illegal drugs is falling. The number of drug addicts who have undergone rehab has also increased dramatically, while the number of drug addicts who have become infected with HIV has fallen significantly. What, though, do these numbers mean? With what exactly can they be compared? There isn’t a great deal of data from before the experiment began. And, for example, the number of adults who have tried illegal drugs at some point in their lives is increasing in most other countries throughout Europe as well.

Running Out of Money

“We haven’t found some miracle cure,” Goulão says. Still, taking stock after nearly 12 years, his conclusion is, “Decriminalization hasn’t made the problem worse.”

At the moment, Goulão’s greatest concern is the Portuguese government’s austerity policies in the wake of the euro crisis. Decriminalization is pointless, he says, without being accompanied by prevention programs, drug clinics and social work conducted directly on the streets. Before the euro crisis, Portugal spent €75 million ($98 million) annually on its anti-drug programs. So far, Goulão has only seen a couple million cut from his programs, but if the crisis in the country grows worse, at some point there may no longer be enough money.

It is simply by chance that the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has its headquarters in Lisbon. Frank Zobel works here, analyzing various approaches to combating drugs, and he says he can observe “the greatest innovation in this field” right outside his office door.

No drug policy, Zobel says, can genuinely prevent people from taking drugs — at least, he is not familiar with any model that works this way. As for Portugal, Zobel says, “This is working. Drug consumption has not increased severely. There is no mass chaos. For me as an evaluator, that’s a very good outcome.”

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein


All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH


Thankful for Referendums

Could it be?  Have I finally gotten a taste of this thing called patriotism?

It’s old news by now, but today when I was on the phone with my dad, summarizing the last few weeks of news in my life, I realized just how jazzed I am about the referendum results in this month’s elections. I actually sounded proud to be American, maybe for the first time in my life!

(…but not that proud.)

OK, so these weren’t nation-wide changes, granted.  And I may not smoke pot anymore, or be looking to marry another lady, but the referendums that passed in Washington, Colorado, Maryland and Maine are nothing short of inspirational.  There could be hope for this old spread of land afterall …

Colorado & Washington Go Green

A giant step in the right direction, not only from my rather liberal point of view, but economically sound as well!  Just think of all the potential profit from marijuana sales, not to mention all the money saved trying to capture harmless potheads!  It’d be nice to think NYPD wouldn’t be wasting $75m per year making arrests for something as innocuous as reefer possession (the number one reason for arrest in the state – say what?) . . . when they could be making bank:

green = good


Let’s just hope the Federal Government doesn’t smack down a court case in retaliation . . .


Big Gay High Fives for Maryland, Washington & Maine!

According to Wiki, “Since 2000, eleven countries (Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, and Sweden) and several sub-national jurisdictions (parts of Mexico and the United States) have begun to allow same-sex couples to marry.”

It’s an obvious fact: the right to marry should be a basic human right.

And as a tasty little cherry atop this delicious justice sundae, according to the Wall Street Journal, same sex marriage is a huge benefit to the economy!  Washington state is looking to rake in a cool $89m dollars in the first three years of legalized same sex marriage alone.

That may be the kind of language we need to use with some of the more “stubborn,” shall we say, pockets of society who are still holding tight to an out-dated definition of marriage being between a man and woman.  And don’t get me started on the Bible as proof of this kind of “logic!”  If we take that thing as our rulebook, it’s polygamy, women as property, and slavery for all!  (No offense, Christians, I’m down with most of the other stuff in there :o))  Religious dogma can have a paralyzying effect, but not in spiritual traditions like the Quakers, Episcopalians, the Metropolitan Community Church, the United Church of Christ, the United Church of Canada, Reform and Conservative Jews, Wiccans, Druids, Unitarian Universalists and Native American religions with a two-spirit tradition, which all practice same-sex marriages.

Maryland, Washington and Maine have now joined the ranks of nine state governments (along with the District of Columbia, the Coquille Indian Tribe, and the Suquamish tribe) that have legalized same-sex marriage and offer same-sex marriages: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York  . . .  Could Illinois be next?  Or could it be Oregon, Hawaii and Colorado?

(Eeew, look at all that red!  Those conservatives sure are proactive . . . )

I’ll Give You a Topic …

. . . The yoga studio is neither a drug den nor a temple, discuss!

(Article below by David Silverberg, From the Globe and Mail Published on Wednesday, Sep. 08, 2010 5:07PM EDT)

They chat away breezily between vaporizer tokes, sometimes veering off into conspiracy theories about the government or discussions of the healthiest way to smoke marijuana. Then the 12 yoga lovers extend their arms and breathe deeply. Yoga mats cover the floor. A guitarist strums chords as incense weaves its tendrils across the room.

As the light haze of pot smoke dissipates in the downtown Toronto living room, the ganja yoga session begins.

“When you’re high, you can focus better on your breath,” says Dee Dussault, who runs a monthly session of “cannabis-enhanced yoga” at her home dubbed Follow Your Bliss.

“ Yoga and marijuana, together… It’s like putting salt on your food. It’s just a little enhancement.”— Tanya Pillay

She says smoking marijuana in small doses before a yoga class also makes students more receptive to the poses and philosophies behind the activities. “For some people, it makes them uninhibited and open to the idea of the heart chakra, for example.”

Heart chakras aside, ganja yoga has the THC whiff of being the latest yoga fad, following on the heels of hot yoga, circus yoga, pre- and postnatal yoga, acro yoga (acrobatics), even hip-hop yoga. While cannabis has been deeply entwined with spiritualism over the centuries, some yoga practitioners say that a pure body is ideal for the exercise and that smoking pot could cause an unwieldy imbalance. As one online-forum commenter opined: “Why should we try to purify our body and soul through yoga if we later intoxicate it again with marijuana or other substances?”

But Dan Skye, senior editor at New York-based High Times magazine, which tracks marijuana trends, disagrees with yoga purists who believe getting high before a class is detrimental. “Pot is changing medicine; it’s changing recreational habits,” he says. The latest research seems to back up his claim: A recent McGill University study found that cannabis helped alleviate chronic neuropathic pain.

Ms. Dussault remains unfazed. For the past year, she has run ganja yoga out of her home studio as well as at the Hot Box Café in Toronto’s Kensington Market. The class takes place on the last Friday of the month, after work, and she charges $15 for each session. Often, she invites a musician to play some relaxing tunes during the 90 minutes, and she gives out munchies – fruits, nuts, tea – after the class.

Because Ms. Dussault publicizes ganja yoga openly, there is the question of legal repercussions. But she’s quick to say, “No, I’ve never been worried about cops. I think they have bigger fish to fry.”

Among the ground rules at the studio, participants must bring their own pot – and there’s no dealing or mooching. And she makes a point of meeting students before the session “to determine if they want to come just to get stoned.”

Ms. Dussault also encourages participants to fine-tune their yoga skills before embracing ganja yoga. She wants to ensure that people “first experience the true teachings of yoga” and then try ganja yoga to enjoy a different yoga flavour.

Her studio isn’t the only site for cannabis-enhanced yoga. The B.C. Compassion Club Society, a full-service compassion club in Vancouver, offers yoga sessions for those who use medicinal marijuana. Nicole Marcia, the club’s yoga therapist, says she notices that many yoga patrons are “medicated” once they start the session, but for one important reason.

“They need marijuana in order to fight the chronic pain and anxiety they feel,” Ms. Marcia says. She notices that some patients with multiple sclerosis, for instance, are able to “be present” and practise yoga once they’ve gotten high.

“ Marijuana quells those voices in your mind. ”— Melinda Reidl, yoga practitioner

Many pot dispensaries and compassion clubs in California and Colorado – where pot is decriminalized – offer yoga classes, including The Herb Shoppe in Colorado Springs. Qat Carter, who teaches there, says that some of her students prefer to eat marijuana edibles, such as pot brownies, because ingesting cooked pot lengthens the high. “My husband says it helps him increase his body awareness and makes him more relaxed when he does the poses.”

Torontonian Melinda Reidl, 36, enjoys how the marijuana buzz complements the yoga experience. “Marijuana quells those voices in your mind,” she says, adding that ganja yoga encourages more deliberate movements. It’s not a competition to push you to sweat hard, like in some hot yoga studios, Ms. Reidl notes. She calls Ms. Dussault’s sessions “a slow-dub version of yoga.”

Blending a stoned perspective and the precision of yoga could be dangerous, warns Monica Voss, an instructor of 30 years who practises out of Esther Myers Yoga Studio in Toronto. “Some people might not be aware of their body when they’re high and maybe they would injure themselves,” she points out.

She would like to see academic studies done to determine cannabis’s relation with pain release and concentration. That way, yoga practitioners may feel more comfortable recommending this type of yoga combination. “It’s healthy to see all these yoga variations, but buyer beware,” she adds.

But Mr. Skye, who used to work in the fitness industry, says he saw many people smoking before stretching. “I knew a few muscle heads who used to toke up on the gym’s fire escape just before class,” he says.

“I like the idea of smoking pot as a spiritual experience, not just for recreational use,” says Tanya Pillay, 35, who attended her first ganja yoga class in August. “When you take an activity like yoga and take the altered state smoking pot creates, it combines to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

“Yoga and marijuana, together,” Ms. Pillay says, “it’s like putting salt on your food. It’s just a little enhancement.”