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Dr. Michele Ross Heads To Portugal With Drug Policy Alliance

· IMPACT Network,drug policy,portugal

Colorado Activists Join Delegation to Portugal March 19-22 to Learn from Country’s Groundbreaking Drug Decriminalization Policy

Portugal’s Dramatic Declines in Overdose Deaths, HIV Infections & Drug-Related Arrests Draw Those Hit Hardest by U.S. Drug War to Investigate Further

What has Portugal learned since they implemented the decriminalization of all drugs in 2001? How did the country go from having the highest rate of overdose fatalities in the E.U. to the second lowest? How did they go from having the highest rate of injection drug-transmitted HIV infections in the E.U. to the lowest rate of new HIV infections from intravenous drug use? What has been the impact of Portugal’s dramatic decline (60 percent) of people arrested and referred to criminal court for drug law violations? What can Colorado learn from Portugal’s accomplishments in a moment when the current Attorney General is seeking to roll back gains made by drug policy reformers in reducing the consequent harms of the drug war?

A delegation of people organized by the Drug Policy Alliance who have been hit hardest by the U.S. war on drugs – from those who have been incarcerated for drug offenses to those who have lost loved ones to an overdose – are heading to Portugal March 19 – 21 to investigate these questions and more. Multiple Denver-based advocates will join, including Art Way, Colorado State Director for Drug Policy Alliance, Terri Hurst, Policy Coordinator with Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and Dr. Michele Ross, Founder, Executive Director and President of the cannabis research, education and advocacy organization, IMPACT Network.

“Colorado is in the spotlight concerning drug policy reform in the United States and we’re excited to get a fresh perspective on how we can further advance public health while reducing the role of the criminal justice system in addressing drug-related issues,” said Art Way, JD, Colorado State Director and Senior Director, Criminal Justice Reform Strategy for Drug Policy Alliance. “Portugal’s model of drug decriminalization puts reality, science and public health before morality, punishment and incarceration. It’s a sensible approach that is preventing overdose and promoting health and safety. Seeing their regulatory framework up close will assist our effort to remove criminal penalties for drug use and possession here in Colorado and elsewhere in the US.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing how decriminalization looks on the ground and how Portugal has benefited from having over 15 years of drug policies that are based in public health, evidence and research; not stigma, shame and incarceration,” said Terri Hurst, MSW, Policy Coordinator with Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. “I’m hopeful some of the lessons learned in Portugal, in particular expanded access to harm reduction and treatment services, can be applied here in Colorado.”

“Legalizing cannabis for adult use in Colorado was a first step in harm reduction. It's time to consider decriminalization of all drugs as a potential means to address the opioid crisis that is not being treated through our traditional health care system," stated Dr. Michele Ross, IMPACT Network Executive Director. "This delegation to Portugal provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from a country that has deployed nationwide decriminalization and seen dramatic drops in overdose deaths and arrests."

Colorado has made strides in drug policy reform in recent years by becoming the first state in the U.S to tax and regulate marijuana for adult use, enacting vital harm reduction policies including sterile syringe access and overdose prevention laws, and funding innovative Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) pilot programs. However, the state still loses another community member to overdose roughly every 10 hours. In an area that spans over a hundred thousand square miles, less than a dozen syringe access programs are currently operational and no supervised consumption services sites have yet been established. Racial disparities persist in drug enforcement, including in citations and arrests for marijuana violations among juveniles. Drug felony filings, mostly for simple possession, are increasing and bolstering demand for prison beds while treatment availability is dwindling. Change is urgently needed to address these and other problems and Portugal’s model presents various possibilities for ways forward.

In Portugal, the delegation will hear from João Goulão, the Portuguese General Director for Intervention on Addictive Behaviors and Dependencies; as well as experts from the Ministry of Public Health, NGO leaders, active drug users and formerly incarcerated people. The delegation will also visit the largest drug treatment center in Lisbon; tour methadone maintenance vans located throughout the city offering an opioid substitute; and shadow harm reduction street teams that do direct intervention with active IV drug users, including refugees, chronically homeless people, and sex workers.

In the U.S. there are almost as many drug-related deaths per year as there are lives lost to guns and car accidents combined. In addition, the criminalization of drug possession is a major driver of mass incarceration and mass criminalization. Each year, U.S. law enforcement makes more than 1.5 million drug arrests. The overwhelming majority — more than 80 percent — are for possession only. Discriminatory enforcement of drug possession laws has produced profound racial and ethnic disparities at all levels of the criminal justice system.

Further Details about Portugal’s Decriminalization Policy and its Impacts

In 2001, Portuguese legislators eliminated criminal penalties for low-level possession and consumption of all drugs and reclassified these activities as “administrative violations” (the equivalent of a traffic ticket). The policy also included a major expansion of treatment and harm reduction services, including access to sterile syringes, methadone maintenance, and the elimination of most barriers to such vital services. Drug trafficking remains illegal and is still processed through the criminal justice system. The results? According to the Drug Policy Alliance report, It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession, which examined the results of Portugal’s drug policy:

  • The percentage of people behind bars in Portugal for drug law violations has decreased dramatically, from 44 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2013.
  • The percentage of people arrested and sent to criminal court for drug possession declined by 60 percent.
  • Between 1998 and 2011, the number of people in drug treatment increased by more than 60 percent (from approximately 23,600 to roughly 38,000). Over 70 percent of those who seek treatment receive opioid-substitution therapy, the most effective treatment for opioid dependence.
  • The number of new HIV diagnoses dropped dramatically – from 1,575 cases in 2000 to 78 cases in 2013 – and the number of new AIDS cases decreased from 626 in 2000 to 74 cases in 2013 (in a country of just over 10 million people).
  • Drug overdose fatalities dropped from about 80 in 2001 to just 16 in 2012.
  • The Health Ministry estimates that only about 25,000 Portuguese use heroin, down from 100,000 when the policy began.
  • The Portuguese Health Ministry spends less than $10 per citizen per year on its successful drug policy. Meanwhile the US has spent some $10K per household (more than $1 trillion total) over the decades on a failed drug policy that results in more than 1,000 deaths each week.
  • Perhaps most significantly, by removing the threat of criminal penalties, Portugal took away the fear and stigma associated with seeking treatment. Now those who need treatment come to it voluntarily – and are more likely to succeed as a result.
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