Portugal Cut Addiction Rates in Half by Decriminalizing Drugs
By Johann Hari
Over a decade ago, the Portuguese had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. So they decriminalized drugs, took money out of prisons, put it into holistic
rehabilitation and found that human connection is the antidote to addiction.
Nearly 15 years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with one percent of the population addicted to heroin. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse.
So they decided to do something radically different. The most crucial step is to get addicts secure housing and subsidized jobs so they have a purpose in life, something to get out of bed for. In warm and welcoming clinics, I watched as they are helped to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after stunning them into silence with drugs to medicate years of trauma.
In one example, several addicts were given a shared loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they became a group, bonded to each other and to society, taking responsibility for each other’s care.
The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction rates have fallen and injection (IV) drug use is down by 50 percent. I’ll repeat that: IV drug use is down by 50 percent.
Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira, the country’s top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings that we would expect: more crime, and more addicts. But when we sat down together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass—and that he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal’s example.
This example isn’t only relevant to addicts. It is relevant to all of us, because it forces us to think differently about ourselves. Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. The wisest sentence of the twentieth century was E.M. Forster’s: “Only connect!” But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection, or provide only the parody of it offered by the Internet. The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live–constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.
The writer George Monbiot has called this “the age of loneliness.” We have created human societies where it is easier for people to become cut off from human connections than ever before. Bruce Alexander, the creator of Rat Park (see more information on page 16), told me that for too long, we have talked exclusively about individual recovery from addiction. We need now to talk about social recovery—how we all recover, together, from the sickness of isolation.
This new evidence isn’t just a challenge to us politically. It doesn’t just require us to change our minds. It requires us to change our hearts as well.
Loving an addict is really hard. When I looked at the addicts I love, it was always tempting to follow the tough love advice: an addict who won’t stop should be shunned. It’s the logic of the drug war, imported into our private lives.
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