The Coronavirus crisis cannot mar Portugal’s remarkable national comeback

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Things had looked so promising, initially.

They certainly did at first, and for a long time Portugal was a European success story; riding atop a wave of immune success.

Somehow, even as the Coronavirus wrought havoc on its Iberian neighbours Spain, Portugal managed to remain relatively unscathed. This was all the more remarkable when, at one point in March, Spain placed second in the unenviable world rankings of Coronavirus cases. Even with what was happening over the border; its neighbour brought to its knees by the virus (“second in the world”), Portugal was still dealing with single figure case numbers.

But as we have seen with this virus, things can turn on their head in a matter of days, and Portugal could not maintain this immunity forever. The Portuguese tourism industry, with its reliance on British custom and business (let’s not even start on Coronavirus in Britain) has collapsed (https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-health-coronavirus-portugal-tourism/portugals-tourism-collapses-in-april-due-to-coronavirus-idUKKBN2351CQ). Unfortunately, as with travel the world over, this fall has been mirrored by plummeting tourist numbers from abroad, especially from Spain and France, the closest overseas markets. As if by some slightly sick joke, almost to the minute that Coronavirus halted tourism and the influx of foreign money, this much-needed money was replaced by Covid-19.

Fast forward a month and Coronavirus had now spread like wildfire, ripping through the country just as other European states were reaching the downwards curves in their virus trajectories. How painful it is, I know. From a position of relative comfort (especially when compared with their Lusophone cousins in Brazil), Portugal has now buckled to join the rest of the world in their struggle to control an invisible killer.

BUT leaving Corona aside for a second (oh let us dream!), and thinking of happier things — even a global pandemic cannot overshadow Portugal’s national renaissance. The country’s change in fortunes — from the pre-millennium days to today — has been stunning. So stunning, lest we forget, that even a global pandemic cannot overshadow it.

Historically the “sick man of Europe”, Portugal was for years economically stagnant; especially when compared to its European neighbours. On top of an ailing economy, Portugal was the unfortunate possessor of a widespread drug problem. Heroin, the in-vogue substance of the time, was enormously popular — at one point, reportedly 1% of the Portuguese population were taking it (https://time.com/longform/portugal-drug-use-decriminalization/). The heroin epidemic of the era led naturally to the rampant spread of HIV and Aids amongst users. The CIA estimates that in 2001 in Portugal, over 22,000 people had contracted the disease (https://www.leafly.com/news/politics/portugal-drug-decriminalization-statistics).

Bubbling away alongside this — or rather, the key cause for this — as Lecia Bushak confirms on Medical Daily, “nearly everyone in the country was related to someone or knew someone addicted to heroin” (https://www.medicaldaily.com/portugal-drug-experiment-heroin-decriminalizing-drugs-382598).

Clearly something needed to be done.

It is at this timely juncture that the Commission for the National Strategy for Drug Control (‘A Comissão para a Estratégia Nacional de Combate à Droga’), spearheaded by Dr João Goulão, (Portugal’s ‘drug Czar’, as he is now known) weighs in with Law 30/2000’.

The law, the first of its kind in the Western world, decriminalised all narcotics — making Portugal a courageous outlier in Europe. Remember — we aren’t talking about legalisation, but rather decriminalisation; there is a subtle but important difference.

Crucially though, the law turned drug possession and use into a public health issue, rather than a criminal one. With this in mind, the authorities began steering drug addicts “away from prisons and punishment” and “towards doctors and healing”. Since this landmark decision, “the number of heroin addicts, other drug addicts, drug-related overdose deaths, and HIV rates have all been in steady decline” (https://www.medicaldaily.com/portugal-drug-experiment-heroin-decriminalizing-drugs-382598).

In a bid to ramp up the effectiveness of its new law, too, Portugal essentially flipped how it spends its money in the fight against drug addictionA breakdown of 90% of funds being spent on law enforcement and prevention, along with 10% on healthcare and treatment wasreversed by the law of 2000. Remember, too — this is all a bid to turn the perception and view of drugs on its head; and the above example tells the story pretty succinctly.

Possession of personal amounts of any drug — i.e. anything less than a 10-day supply — earns the ‘possessor’ an appearance in front of the same Commission as mentioned above, rather than a criminal sentence (as is the way, pleasingly, in more and more of the world today as governments’ views of narcotics evolve). Importantly, too, this ‘Commission’ is made up of a lawyer, a psychologist, and a social worker. It is not part of the criminal justice system and has no one with any legal affiliations on it. This helps to give the two — narcotics and criminality — a wide berth.

Making the whole industry transparent brings with it a number of positive side effects too. Along with having a market of ‘cleaner’ drugs that are higher in purity and contain no hazardous or nasty substances bolted onto them, state control of the narcotics industry and trade completely eradicates the existence of a black market. When everything is legal and State-controlled, all is ‘above board’ and everything is out in the open. With such progressive legislating too, you effectively wipe out the existence of ‘drug wars’

Speak to Brazilians about their dreams of a country not dominated by drug wars, and they would call you a “sonhador” (a dreamer).

What we must focus on, and the principal reason for this article, is the extent to which Portugal’s maverick approach to drugs has turned the country’s fortunes around. Since the landmark decision in 2000, Portugal has thrived almost unceasingly. These have been improvements both in health terms and in social terms; which — if truth be told — successive governments have been lucky to inherit.

Both HIV infection rates and drug-related deaths have plummeted, and Portugal now has both the lowest levels of drug use and the lowest drug mortality rate in Western Europe (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/portugal-drug-laws-problems-abuse-decriminalised-results-success-study-cocaine-marijuana-heroin-a7996896.html. In a public health sense, the law couldn’t have worked better.

In terms of tourism — along with (or perhaps due to) being one of the most fashionable world destinations to visit, (before 2020!) Portugal had experienced year upon year increases in foreign tourist numbers. The Algarve alone hosted over 20 million visitor stays for three years in a row (https://www.portugalresident.com/record-2019-in-sight-as-algarve-registers-over-20-million-overnight-stays/). Over 20 million…

Clearly the nation’s openness and accepting attitude towards drugs has not driven the tourists away; quite the opposite in fact.

It would be a good time to bring in the USA, if only to demonstrate how this can very much go the other way. The two countries dealt with nationwide scourges of drugs at a similar time, only diverging in how they approached the issue. While this article has charted Portugal’s approach to handling rising drug addiction and incarceration rates, the USA took almost the polar opposite route to solving the issue.

Everyone is aware, I would think, of the vast amounts of Federal cash spent by the US government cracking down on and incarcerating drug users in the now infamous ‘War on Drugs’. What perhaps people are not asaware of is the resounding failure that the War on Drugs has proved to be. While Portugal continues to go from strength to strength, the trend has arguably gone in reverse in the US, as the behemothic country struggles with the worst addiction epidemic in its history. The opioid crisis (a story for another time, trust me) continues to wreak havoc across the States, and overdose deaths have exploded from 8,000 per year 20 years ago to over 50,000 today. The US really is crying out for someone with the vision and bravery of Dr João Goulão, that is tragically clear.

This, unfortunately, is especially pertinent at this moment in time, with the country buckling under the weight of Coronavirus.

As this crisis unfolds across the world, it threatens life and individual lives in almost every country. The progress made by Portugal in what has been an extraordinary national comeback is at risk of being derailed. Cases are rising across Europe, and the rest of the world is no different. The economic turmoil that lies ahead is enough to make one shudder, but all we can hope for is that the nation of Portugal may once again rise from the ashes.

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