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  • Writer's pictureDahlia Foundation

Once hailed for decriminalizing drugs, Portugal is now having doubts

PORTO, Portugal — Addiction haunts the recesses of this ancient port city, as people with gaunt, clumsy hands lift crack pipes to lips, syringes to veins. Authorities are sealing off warren-like alleyways with iron bars and fencing in parks to halt the spread of encampments. A siege mentality is taking root in nearby enclaves of pricey condos and multimillion-euro homes.

Portugal decriminalized all drug use, including marijuana, cocaine and heroin, in an experiment that inspired similar efforts elsewhere, but now police are blaming a spike in the number of people who use drugs for a rise in crime. In one neighborhood, state-issued paraphernalia — powder-blue syringe caps, packets of citric acid for diluting heroin — litters sidewalks outside an elementary school.

Porto’s police have increased patrols to drug-plagued neighborhoods. But given existing laws, there’s only so much they can do. On a recent afternoon, an emaciated man in striped pants sleeping in front of a state-funded drug-use center awoke to a patrol of four officers. He sat up, then defiantly began assembling his crack pipe. Officers walked on, shaking their heads.

Portugal became a model for progressive jurisdictions around the world embracing drug decriminalization, such as the state of Oregon, but now there is talk of fatigue. Police are less motivated to register people who misuse drugs and there are year-long waits for state-funded rehabilitation treatment even as the number of people seeking help has fallen dramatically. The return in force of visible urban drug use, meanwhile, is leading the mayor and others here to ask an explosive question: Is it time to reconsider this country’s globally hailed drug model?

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