How does a country reduce drug related HIV infections by 95% and overdose fatalities by 80%? The proportion of teenagers who say they used illicit drugs has dropped by almost 50%.
Really simple. Just Decriminalize Drugs!
The data and results have been phenomenal for Portugal, ever since it adopted a set of measures and programmes to fight the menace of drug addiction in 2001.
What did Portugal Do?
It’s a multi dimensional, multi departmental effort. It didn’t change it’s laws on drug trafficking or legalize drug use. It made the purchase or possession of small quantities (up to a 10-day supply) not a crime but an administrative offense. Like getting a speeding ticket.
Offenders have to attend a “Dissuasion Commission” hearing — where social workers try to prevent users from becoming addicted.
Hypodermic kits are distributed by outreach workers and used syringes are collected for safe disposal and to prevent sharing.
The afflicted are rehabilitated, on the premise that the lack of social connection is what causes many to take to drugs. The rehabilitation involves training and even finding suitable work, with the family and immediate friends circle supporting the individual.
Messaging is targeted at prostitutes, unemployed youth, school dropouts etc. The social workers passed out sterilized needles and urged users to try methadone. Drugs were tested at gatherings like concerts to check see if they were harmful, and then handed back, if safe. Decriminalization made it easier, because people no longer feared arrest.
Guns and handguns being strictly controlled made it easier to manage the distribution networks and the related violence usually observed in other countries waging the drug epidemic.
What’s the Premise?
The entire approach is built on the premise that addiction is a chronic disease, like diabetes and not a punishable offence. The emphasis is on medical care rather than punishment. The entire policy and thought is based on the principle that heroin and drug usage can never be eradicated completely, but at least lives and livelihoods can be saved.
It’s about helping hands and not handcuffs.
Do watch this video by Johann Hari. It'll open your eyes and heart!
Lessons for Organizations and Teams
1. True Empathy
True empathy can yield results. It leads to a deep understanding of the real environment and reasons for certain behaviours and attitudes. (both positive and negative)
2. What are you measuring?
The Portuguese government didn’t target 100% eradication, realizing that it was a near impossibility. They worked towards reducing the deaths.
3. A 360 degree approach is the key
Be it gun control, or the de-crimininalization laws, the health teams and social fabric. They all needed to work in tandem to achieve the results. The change in attitude across all the stakeholders was key in working towards the goal
4. Challenging the Norm & Sticking to It
Portugal didn’t achieve this overnight, and there are still several who believe that the programme needs to be more effective. Going against the tide takes guts, but sticking to it, when no one else in the world is riding along with you, takes for something else. It isn’t easy, but fundamental change, rarely is.
If you'd like to read more about Portugal's programme, please read this article as well.