Press Release

Los Angeles activist Susan Burton joins delegation to Portugal to learn from country’s groundbreaking drug decriminalization policy


Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project, will join Drug Policy Alliance in investigating Portugal’s dramatic declines in overdose deaths, HIV infections & drug-related arrests.


What has Portugal learned since decriminalizing all drugs in 2001? How did the country go from having the highest rate of overdose fatalities in the E.U. to the second lowest? How did it go from having the highest rate of injection drug-transmitted HIV infections in the E.U. to the lowest rate of new HIV infections from intravenous drug use? What has been the impact of Portugal’s dramatic decline (60 percent) of people arrested and referred to criminal court for drug law violations? What can the U.S. learn from Portugal’s accomplishments at a time when the current US Attorney General is seeking to roll back gains made by drug policy reformers?


Organized by the Drug Policy Alliance, a delegation of people who have been hit hardest by the U.S. war on drugs – from those who have been incarcerated for drug offenses to those who have lost loved ones to an overdose – is heading to Portugal March 19 to 21 to investigate these questions and more.


“Communities of color in America have been crushed by a war on drugs that has gone on for more than four decades. We know that there are better ways to treat drug use than incarceration. We know that punishment is not an effective solution for addiction,” says Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project. “This trip to Portugal is important because America doesn’t have to keep doing things the same old way, but we need to learn new ways of thinking, new ways of approaching drug policy that don’t send people to prison for years on end.”


Even though rates of drug use and sales are similar across racial lines, nearly 80 percent of people in federal prison and nearly 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are black or Latino. Research also indicates that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue mandatory minimum sentences for black people as for white people charged with the same offense.


In the U.S. there are almost as many drug-related deaths per year as there are lives lost to guns and car accidents combined. In addition, the criminalization of drug possession is a major driver of mass incarceration and mass criminalization. Each year, U.S. law enforcement makes more than 1.5 million drug arrests. The overwhelming majority — more than 80 percent — are for possession only. Discriminatory enforcement of drug possession laws has produced profound racial and ethnic disparities at all levels of the criminal justice system.


While in Portugal, the delegation will hear from João Goulão, the Portuguese General Director for Intervention on Addictive Behaviors and Dependencies, as well as experts from the Ministry of Public Health, NGO leaders, active drug users and formerly incarcerated people. The delegation will also tour the largest drug treatment center in Lisbon, visit methadone maintenance vans located throughout the city offering an opioid substitute, and shadow harm reduction street teams that do direct intervention with active IV drug users, including refugees, chronically homeless people and sex workers.


Further Details about Portugal’s Decriminalization Policy and its Impacts


In 2001, Portuguese legislators eliminated criminal penalties for low-level possession and consumption of all drugs and reclassified these activities as “administrative violations” (the equivalent of a traffic ticket). The policy also included a major expansion of treatment and harm reduction services, including access to sterile syringes, methadone maintenance, and the elimination of most barriers to such vital services. Drug trafficking remains illegal and is still processed through the criminal justice system. The results? According to the Drug Policy Alliance report “It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession:


  • The percentage of people behind bars in Portugal for drug law violations has decreased dramatically, from 44 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2013.


  • The percentage of people arrested and sent to criminal court for drug possession declined by 60 percent.


  • Between 1998 and 2011, the number of people in drug treatment increased by more than 60 percent (from approximately 23,600 to roughly 38,000). Over 70 percent of those who seek treatment receive opioid-substitution therapy, the most effective treatment for opioid dependence.


  • The number of new HIV diagnoses dropped dramatically – from 1,575 cases in 2000 to 78 cases in 2013 – and the number of new AIDS cases decreased from 626 in 2000 to 74 cases in 2013 (in a country of just over 10 million people).


  • Drug overdose fatalities dropped from about 80 in 2001 to 16 in 2012.


  • The Portuguese Health Ministry estimates that only about 25,000 Portuguese use heroin, down from 100,000 when the policy began.


  • The Health Ministry spends less than $10 per citizen per year on its successful drug policy. Meanwhile, the US has spent some $10K per household (more than $1 trilliontotal) on a failed drug policy that results in more than 1,000 deaths each week.


  • Perhaps most significantly, by removing the threat of criminal penalties, Portugal took away the fear and stigma associated with seeking treatment. Now those who need treatment come to it voluntarily – and are more likely to succeed as a result.




About A New Way of Life


In 1998, Susan Burton founded A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project (ANWOL) dedicated to helping women, families, and communities break the cycle and heal from the formidable experiences of incarceration. ANWOL advances multi-dimensional solutions to the effects of incarceration, including (1) providing housing and support to formerly incarcerated women for successful community re-entry, family reunification, and individual healing; (2) working to restore the civil rights of formerly incarcerated people; and (3) empowering, organizing, and mobilizing formerly incarcerated people as advocates for social change and personal transformation.


A New Way of Life envisions a world where every person can make decisions for his/her own life, is accountable for those decisions, and is valued as a contributing member of the community. ANWOL has been a driving force in considerable policy reforms, including the ban-the-box ordinances and the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act (Proposition 47), a historic measure to reverse decades of antiquated approaches to community safety and justice, properly redirecting costly prison construction and management resources to education, re-entry, and victims’ services.


About Drug Policy Alliance


The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is the nation’s leading organization promoting drug policies that are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights. In DPA’s vision of tomorrow, people are not punished simply for what they put into their bodies but only for harm done to others. DPA’s work spans issues from medical marijuana to youth drug education. DPA works to ensure that our nation’s drug policies no longer arrest, incarcerate, disenfranchise and otherwise harm millions of nonviolent people, especially people of color. DPA’s mission is to advance those policies and attitudes that best reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition, and to promote the sovereignty of individuals over their minds and bodies.

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