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Monday, 16 July, 2001, 12:11 GMT 13:11 UK
The new Amsterdam?
Rolling a joint
Cannabis and heroin are being decriminalised.
By southern Europe correspondent Malcolm Brabant

Lisbon's Casal Ventoso district is known as Portugal's hard drugs supermarket.

Hundreds of addicts go there to queue around the clock for heroin and cocaine. Last month, Portuguese law regarded these people as criminals. But now things have changed.

I have a fear that if Portugal legalises drugs, we will become a paradise for drug addicts

Popular Party leader Paulo Portas
Portugal has recently taken the radical step of decriminalising the use of all recreational drugs - from cannabis to heroin.

The new law, which came into effect this month, means that people caught with only a small amount of drugs for personal use will not be sent to jail.

The reforms are supposed to give the police more resources to catch dealers and smugglers. But critics fear the move will turn Portugal into a haven for drug-seeking tourists.

'Drug paradise'

Leader of the Popular Party, Paulo Portas, said: "I have a fear that if Portugal legalises drugs, we will become, sooner or later, a paradise for drug addicts."

Secretary of State Vitalino Canas
Vitalino Canas hopes the law will solve Portugal's drug problems
For a small country, Portugal has a huge heroin problem. The government adopted a radical approach because it considered the tough anti-drug policies of countries like America had failed.

It hopes to reduce the number of addicts through treatment rather than policing.

"I believe that this new law can provide a new solution," said Secretary of State Vitalino Canas. "We are not creating any better conditions for drug consumption in Portugal, but better conditions for drug addicts who need help."

Treatment not jail

Portugal's new tolerant justice system has already been put into action.

My aim is to support them, to tell them they can have another way of life

Dr Maria Antonia Almeida Santos
Instead of facing a court, people caught with cannabis are obliged to meet a commission of psychologists and social workers, who try to convince them to change their ways.

Heroin users will also be dealt with sympathetically, but compelled to seek treatment.

Dr Maria Antonia Almeida Santos, from Lisbon Toxicology Commission, explained the new approach. "My aim is to support them, to tell them they can have another way of life - a good life," she said.

Tourism fears

But there are real worries that Portugal will become the new mecca for drug tourism.

Especially vulnerable are Portugal's southern resorts, such as Albuferia, which are popular with package holidaymakers from northern Europe.

Packed beach in Portugal
Portugal's tourist resorts are areas of particular concern
The police are particularly concerned about synthetic party drugs like Ecstasy, popular with younger tourists after a day on the beach. Ecstasy is said to be widely available in Albufeira.

Sandra Tyler Haywood, from the British Embassy in Lisbon, said: "Of course we have some concerns that people may see the law as a license for a free drug holiday.

"But it is still illegal to take drugs, buy drugs, and sell them," she said. "It isn't a 'get out of jail free' card."

So what is going to be the result of Portugal's big gamble? Will tourists come to marvel at the elegant architecture?

Or will Portugal become the new Amsterdam, with a drug habit that is out of control?

See also:

07 Jul 00 | Europe
Portugal legalises drug use
06 Jul 01 | UK Politics
The drugs debate
11 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Portugal
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