"In the 1980s and 1990s, heroin gripped [Portugal], resulting in the highest HIV infection rate in the European Union. One out of every 100 people in Portugal used the drug.
Faced with an unprecedented health crisis, the government tried something unheard of, and decriminalized drug possession and consumption in 2001. The country flipped how it spent money on addiction, moving the majority of funds formerly spent on criminal punishment into treatment, and gave its health ministry responsibility for drug-related issues rather than law enforcement.
This led to a shift in how people thought about one another. “Those who had been referred to sneeringly as 'drogados' (junkies)—became known more broadly, more sympathetically, and more accurately, as ‘people who use drugs’ or ‘people with addiction disorders,’” a 2017 Guardian article about Portugal’s policy noted.
Portugal opened an overdose-prevention center only recently, but not because of ideological opposition—because it has already come so far in reducing overdose deaths that the spaces were less urgently required. The results of Portugal’s drug policy when compared to the results of the United States’ drug policy are staggering. In Portugal, 27 people died of drug overdoses in 2016. The country is on track to whittle its overdose deaths to a single digit.
In the United States, more than 60,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2016. The next year, the last with comprehensive data, was no better. “We lost 70,000 of our loved ones in 2017,” Beyer said.
The underlying idea motivating Portugal’s policymakers and the people fighting for overdose-prevention spaces is the same: People who are addicted to drugs should be treated as people in need of medical care, and it shouldn’t be against the law to be sick."