When Alberto de Oliveria was stopped in the
Lisbon metro recently, he feared the worst: Being caught with heroin
could mean a return to jail.
"I was afraid," he recalls. "But the police didn't arrest me.
They just sent me to a drug commission that told me I needed
Mr. Oliveria is one of the first to benefit from a new law, in
effect since July 1, that focuses on trying to rehabilitate drug
users. Portugal has become the first European country to
decriminalize the use - but not sale - of all drugs, from cannabis
to crack cocaine.
The change solidifies a significant shift away from the punitive
approach in socially conservative Portugal, where a consensus had
formed that criminalizing drug use was a failed policy. In enacting
the new legislation, Portugal mirrors attitudes in more liberal
Spain and Italy, which, instead of imposing criminal punishment on
drug use, have historically limited the punishment to fines and
other administrative sanctions, such as enrollment in a
Danilo Ballotta, a drug-law specialist at the Lisbon-based
European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, says the
recent changes in Portugal reflect a European movement to treat the
use of drugs as a health - rather than a criminal - issue.
"Even in those countries where there is strict legislation, there
seems to be a movement towards more progressive legislation," Mr.
Previously in Portugal, those possessing or consuming small
amounts of drugs faced up to one year in jail, although that law was
rarely enforced. The police had stopped arresting suspects, and the
courts were throwing out cases against users rather than apply
legislation that sent them to prison.
Now, for possession of heroin, de Oliveria is enrolled in a
methadone clinic, trying to kick his 20-year heroin addiction.
"We see that prohibition has failed," says Vitalino Canas,
Portugal's drug czar. But he is quick to say that the country has
not gone soft on drugs. "We are not liberalizing nor legalizing
drugs. But those that use them shouldn't go to jail. Users are sick
people. Only if they do not accept treatment will we impose
administrative sanctions." The sanctions include fines of up to
several hundred dollars and public service.
Removing drug users from the criminal justice system will allow
Portuguese police to turn more energy toward catching those
importing, dealing, and possessing large quantities of narcotics.
"Traffickers are our enemy," says Canas, "and now we can focus our
efforts on them."
Portugal is considered to be one of the main gateways for drugs
entering Europe. Addiction rates are among the highest in Europe,
with an estimated 80,000 heroin addicts in a population of 10
million. The Netherlands, by comparison, has about 25,000 in a
population of 16 million. To help addicts, and to crack down harder
on traffickers, Portugal is raising its drugs-fighting budget to
$104.5 million, up from $34 million in 1995.
Critics of the new law say it will make the situation in the
country worse. "There will be planeloads of students headed for the
Algarve to smoke marijuana," Paulo Portas, the head of the
opposition Popular Party, warned as the law was passed.
Authorities claim there is no evidence of "drug tourists" yet,
and Portugal has no intention of becoming Europe's drug-party haven.
Holland is still significantly more liberal in practice.
In Portugal, a newly established drug commission determines what
will happen to a user detained by police. Marijuana smokers not
deemed at risk for harder drugs, for example, are dismissed with a
warning, while those addicted to harder drugs are sent to treatment
centers. If the commission's recommendations are ignored, or in
cases of repeat offenses, administrative sanctions are imposed,
including fines up to the equivalent of one minimum monthly wage,
suspension of the right to travel abroad, or a requirement of public
service. The user can also be banned from a profession or location
if he presents a danger to others.
So far, the modest number of cases suggest that police are
choosing to enforce the law only occasionally. The commission in
Lisbon has seen an average of about three cases per day.
Portugal has also passed another law aimed at treating users. In
the Lisbon neighborhood of Curraleira, where trash tangles with
weeds around weathered public housing, a bus dispensing free
methadone began making runs three weeks ago. Addicts line up in the
gray of an early Saturday morning for their daily dose.
Luis Ferreira, a thin man with a scraggly beard and matted hair,
hopes that joining the methadone treatment will allow him to kick
his five-year addiction. "I was begging in the train stations" to
get enough money for heroin, he said. "Now I have a chance to take
charge of my life."
When the methadone bus first pulled into the neighborhood,
dealers threw stones and yelled at the staff, says the nurse on
duty. "They are afraid we will take away their