Lessons from Portugal

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Diversion

As we celebrate the second year of Clergy for New Drug Policy, this is a good time to bring us all up-to-date on the central issue that lies at the heart of our work. Our mission is to seek a “health not punishment” response to drug policy. We will be successful when all non-violent, low-level drug users are not treated as criminals and steered to treatment if they are struggling with addiction.

One nation does this with great success. Sixteen years ago, Portugal decriminalized all drugs, not just marijuana. Police refer all non-traffickers to “dissuasion commissions”, consisting of a doctor, social worker, and a lawyer. Selling drugs is still against the law. If the user is deemed a recreational user, the commission issues a small fine, or perhaps community service; in other words, a civil sanction.

If the user is an addict, he or she is given the option of treatment, which is available for all who need it. This approach is a resounding success. Drug use has not increased, and, in fact, has gone down for youth. Crime has not gone up. Arrests are way down. So are overdose deaths and incidents of HIV-AIDS and Hepatitis C.

How do we in the United States measure up in the face of this elegant model? Two years ago, in one of our first newsletters, we referred to “Diversion” as “The Quiet Revolution.” Diversion refers simply to keeping individuals out of the criminal justice system, most often by steering them directly to treatment.

Happily, this revolution is no longer quiet; in fact, due in part to the national opioid crisis, it has become a national movement. Two years ago we told you about a police chief in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Horrified by opioid overdose deaths in his community, he sent out a Facebook posting saying that if addicts came to his police station and turned in their paraphernalia, he would not arrest them. He would take them directly to treatment. The posting went viral.

In Illinois, Eric Guenther, police chief of Mundelein, Illinois, became the first to adopt this model in Illinois. Today, over 150 police departments in at least 28 states have formed a national association called Police Addiction Assisted Recovery Initiative (PAARI). Illinois now also has sites in Lee, Livingston, and Whiteside Counties.

The earliest appearance of diversion was in Seattle six years ago, when city and county officials, working with law enforcement, created Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). Police have the option of referring low-level recidivists, usually drug offenders, directly to social services, including drug treatment and housing. This model is now in at least seven cities and planned for fifteen more. It saves money and helps rebuild lives.

We are a long way from the Portugal model here. A month ago we described the proposal before the Maryland House of Delegates to decriminalize all drugs, just as Portugal does. The bill was not reported out. Instead, a legislative committee is considering whether to permit police to issue criminal citations for low-level drug offenders, but not to subject them to detention.

Even this would be progress. Here in Illinois, pre-trial defendants sit in Cook County Jail for an average of 25 days, often to have their cases thrown out. The toll on employment and family life are enormous.

The Portugal model works. It is there for all of us to see. Our own models of diversion are admirable but far too limited. As they expand across the country, as they surely well, perhaps collectively they will bring us to where Portugal is now. We are making progress, but we are not there yet.