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Tuesday, 26 November, 2002, 13:45 GMT
Portugal muses relaxed drugs policy
Albufeira
Drug dealers are active all year in the Algarve

Eduardo has been taking heroin since he was 18. He is now an addict of 33.

Until last year he risked becoming a criminal.

But now, Portugal has among the most relaxed drugs laws in the Europe.

Heroin addict
Heroin addicts like Eduardo say the new laws are better
The socialists, before they were voted out of office, decriminalised the use of all drugs including heroin. Selling drugs remains banned.

The new conservative administration fears young people are being set a bad example, and is reviewing the situation - but it is unlikely to completely reverse the policy.

Eduardo has experienced the new law at first hand, and approves.

"I was driving in my car with a friend who had a small amount of heroin. The police made us stop," he says.

An encounter like this might once have led to a court appearance.

Instead, Eduardo's friend was sent before one of the new Drugs Dissuasion Commissions: no judges, but a panel of doctors and social workers.

"It's much better", says Eduardo, "otherwise they would have taken my car, it would have been much more complicated."

The new commissions' role is to help rather than punish.


When addicts are sent by the court they feel the pressure of justice - when they're sent by the commission, they don't care

Dr Alvaro Pereira
Addicts are often referred to treatment centres, including one run by Dr Alvaro Pereira at Olhao in the Algarve.

He welcomes the change in the law, but says its impact is much the same.

The courts were mostly sending drug users for treatment anyway, not to prison.

Now, people sometimes don't turn up for their treatment.

"When addicts are sent by the court they feel the pressure of justice," says Dr Pereira.

"When they're sent by the commission, they don't care, because they feel the commission has no power."

Packed beach in Portugal
Tourists report being "befriended" by dealers
Some people have been surprised to see addicts still shooting up in the streets.

But decriminalisation was really about stopping the useless prosecutions that clogged up the courts, and about helping the police go after dealers and traffickers instead.

In Albufeira, the Algarve's tourist capital, even at this time of year dealers are active.

One British tourist describes how he got "befriended" by someone who then tried to sell him drugs.

The town's police chief, Captain Antonio Matias, says the new law has brought more information, perhaps because users no longer fear prosecution themselves.

However, he admits one problem is that some dealers try to get round the law by passing themselves off as users, carrying only small amounts at a time.

cannabis
Cannabis smokers can still theoretically be fined
But the last year has not brought the drugs free-for-all that some people feared.

It was made clear at the outset that Portugal would not become the "new Amsterdam", and even cannabis smokers still run the risk of being hauled before the Dissuasion Commissions and possibly fined.

Captain Matias says he has seen no increase in drugs use among tourists.

Despite this, the new conservative government is wary.

Conservatives' changes

When the government came to power last spring many expected the law to be overhauled. Instead it has remained intact, though there have been some structural changes.

Most at risk would appear to be some of the country's 18 Dissuasion Commissions.

There have been complaints that not enough drug users are being sent before them - though the commissions' supporters say they have succeeded in getting users into treatment much faster than before.

But for Eduardo, like Portugal's other 80,000 or so heroin addicts, any law can have only so much impact. The only thing that is ultimately going to cure him is his own willpower.

The drugs trade

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16 Jul 01 | Europe
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