Austerity Could Crush Portugal's Drug Program

By Tony O'Neill 08/14/12

Portugal's successful example of treating drug addiction as a health problem, instead of a matter for the police, is threatened by severe budget cuts.

How should Portugal react to tough times?
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"Other countries do look at us and seek our expertise. If we divest too much, then one day we'll have to talk about the Portuguese drugs policy in the past tense." That's what Joao Goulao, the chief of Portugal's national drugs agency, says about the grim prognosis for his country’s pioneering program. The 11-year old policy of decriminalizing all drugs and treating addiction purely as a health issue—which recently won Portugal a spot on The Fix's list of the world's best drug laws—is reportedly under threat, thanks to austerity measures brought in as a result of the global financial crisis. The cuts come just a news of Portugal’s success in curbing HIV rates and bringing the number of injecting drug users under control is belatedly spreading, with countries like Norway and Argentina looking to follow suit.

The rot began when last year, when Goulao's autonomous agency and its 1,700 staff had to merge with the country's National Health Service as a cost-cutting measure; the health service then lost almost 10% of its funding for 2012. “This integration amid the crisis and with healthcare in a shambles can only yield bad results," says Joao Semedo of Portugal's opposition Left Bloc, who is deputy chairman of the parliamentary healthcare committee. "We already see teams being suspended, programs on the ground discontinued, the end of financing for projects with a high social impact.”

For the past 11 years Portugal’s approach to drug addiction has been a well-documented success. The policy of focusing on treatment rather than punishment for drug use has tackled a previously raging heroin problem—with correspondingly high HIV/Aids rates—and reduced the country's number of injecting drug users by half. But the current cuts in services coincide with a more recent spike in addiction rates; when economies worsen, heroin use typically rises. The number of injecting drug users seeking help through the national drugs agency's centers doubled last year—although the figures are still well below those before the current policy was adopted in 2000—and looks set to increase further. Funding for existing programs is guaranteed until December of this year—but after that, it’s anyone’s guess.

Cutting back drug programs at a time of financial crisis isn't necessarily a smart idea. Greece—a country that's suffered terribly since the start of the economic crisis—was forced to reinstate its initially abandoned prevention programs, after HIV infections among drug users increased 12-fold. As Alexander Kentikelenis, a Cambridge University sociologist, says of the Greek example, "There is a lesson there. The government will think twice now before cutting further in this area. Such spending has to be countercyclical. People need it the most in downturns, not when your economy is growing."

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.