Under the leadership of Danielle Smith, the United Conservatives in Alberta have repeatedly pointed to Portugal for how it deals with addiction when talking about their own drug policy. And that country has now become a model for the party as it commits to expanding involuntary treatment for drug users in the province, should the UCP be re-elected.
The Globe and Mail revealed in April that the UCP was considering a law that would broaden the criteria to force people into treatment. But any legislation must wait until a new government takes power after the May 29 general election.
Last month, Ms. Smith told reporters that her party wants to implement something similar to what are called “dissuasion commissions” in Portugal. She said that this would provide people with “constant opportunities” to enter treatment, and that her team was consulting further on when people would be mandated to do so. However, one key element of Portugal’s drug policy is not being considered by Ms. Smith: decriminalization.
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Earlier this month, the UCP Leader described a different version of how the proposed law would operate, stating that a non-criminal judge would be able to issue a treatment order.
So, what exactly is being done in Portugal and could it work in Alberta? Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at the U.K.-based Transform Drug Policy Foundation, takes The Globe and Mail’s Alanna Smith through its strategy.
Decriminalization in Portugal. How does it work?
Portugal was not the first country to decriminalize some or all drugs, but it is among the most prominent.
Mr. Rolles said what made that country’s policy shift unique in 2001 was that it was done within a broader public health framework. While shifting away from punitive measures for personal possession of narcotics, the government simultaneously expanded treatment and certain harm-reduction supports.
People caught with less than a 10-day supply of any drug, including non-medical marijuana, are typically brought before what’s called a “dissuasion commission.”
These regional panels, made up of social workers plus medical and legal experts, can refer individuals to drug treatment or impose other sanctions, such as fines. People dealing drugs are still subject to criminal penalties.
What typically happens at Portugal’s dissuasion panels?
Often, when an individual comes before the panel for the first time and their drug use is deemed nonproblematic, their case is dismissed. But offenders who are seen to be at a higher risk of harm can be referred to counselling or specialized treatment services. The committee operates independently from the criminal justice system.
While treatment is voluntary, if an individual refuses to go, they can be subject to other administrative sanctions such as community service or suspension of their driver’s licence.
The vast majority of cases are dismissed.
Has Portugal’s drug policy been successful?
Overdose deaths dipped dramatically in the five years after the country reformed its drug strategy and remain among the lowest in Europe. Portugal has also seen notable reductions in its prison population, blood-borne diseases and the prevalence of drug use when compared with other countries in the region.
But critics have blamed Portuguese leaders for stunting further progress. Not much has happened in recent years beyond the opening of supervised drug consumption sites, and recreational cannabis remains illegal, despite countries such as Canada legalizing it.
Harm-reduction advocates in Portugal have said the country is “resting on its laurels to some degree,” Mr. Rolles said. “In many ways, places like British Columbia, and other places around the world, have kind of picked up the baton and run with it and overtaken them.”
Can the Portugal model be replicated in Alberta without decriminalization?
The short answer is no, Mr. Rolles said.
“You can’t have an effective public health response to drugs whilst you’re criminalizing the people you’re trying to help. The change in the law in and of itself isn’t the end of the story. It’s an enabler of a series of public health interventions, but you have to do those as well.”
He said removing criminal sanctions for personal drug possession allows governments to redistribute resources away from the criminal justice system and into health-focused services, ranging from prevention and harm reduction to detox and treatment. It can also reduce stigma and empower people who use drugs to seek help.