What can the United States learn from Portugal about the war on drugs?
A Guest Post by Becca Fritton.
On October 26, 2017, Trump declared the opioid crisis a National Public Health Emergency. As Andrew Bradford discussed in his October 27 post, while a first step, this announcement does not immediately open up additional funding for the crisis, but instead gives access to funding that already exists. Unfortunately, this funding is almost running out.  It is important to note that while this announcement raises the voice of the conversation around opioid use in the United States, many do not even consider this a beginning of a plan to address the epidemic.
Any discussion or solution proposed around addiction is remiss without discussing criminalization. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times put forth a stunning summary of how Portugal has managed to “win” the war drugs. While drug dealers still go to prison in Portugal, they have made it an “administrative offense” to possess or purchase a small quantity of drugs. Instead of going to jail or to trial, offenders attend a meeting with social workers who work towards preventing a casual user from becoming dependent on drugs. Rather than viewing an individual as a criminal, officials in Portugal focus on the individual’s health and help them find resources they need to stay healthy.
Those who are dependent on drugs need medical care, not punishment. The Health Ministry of Portugal also targeted certain neighborhoods and populations for passing out clean needles and encouraging methadone instead of heroin. At large events or concerts, the ministry would offer to test individuals’ drugs to advise if they were safe or not. Portugal’s government has also funded widespread use of methadone vans that supply users with a free and controlled amount of methadone.
This approach has worked extremely well for Portugal and now they have the lowest drug mortality rate in Western Europe, and one-fiftieth the latest count in the United States.  The United States should take note and begin moving in a different direction. Instead of funding prisons and jails, the government should place more funding and infrastructure in place to address addiction from a mental and public health standpoint.
Becca can be contacted via email at: rfritton [@] berkeley [dot] edu
 Allen, G. and Kelly, A. (2017). Trump Administration Declares Opioid Crisis a Public Health Emergency. National Public Radio. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/2017/10/26/560083795/president-trump-may-declare-opioid-epidemic-national-emergency
 Kristof, N. (2017). How to “Win” the War on Drugs. New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/22/opinion/sunday/portugal-drug-decriminalization.html