By State Representative Rob Nosse
In October I wrote about the fact-finding trip I was taking to Portugal. I decided to take the trip in spite of some criticism for doing it because I would get a chance to see how their decriminalization effort actually worked. As promised, I am writing about what I saw, what I learned and sharing a few thoughts about where I think Oregon could go from here, especially since I have been assigned to the Joint Legislative Committee on Addiction and Community Safety, which has been tasked with addressing some of the concerns with Ballot Measure 110.
I arrived in Portugal Friday, October 27 and my work started the next morning. A group of us met with the Vice Mayor and Police Chief for the City of Porto, Portugal’s second biggest city. It was a solid meeting. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that contrary to a lot of news articles, Portuguese officials and police leaders support their decriminalization approach, although they are dealing with some challenges due to a recent change in their law around the amount of drugs a person can possess before they are deemed to be dealing drugs.
Then we toured a drug consumption site (DSR). We call these safe injection sites here in the US. It is just like what it sounds like. I physically observed someone, up close, inject heroin into one of their veins for the first time ever. It was hard to watch, but it kept the person alive and safe. Public use is not tolerated. Using in public leads to an interaction with law enforcement and the local dissuasion commission.
The rest of our delegation arrived in Lisbon, Portugal’s biggest city, including yours truly, on Sunday. I went by train from Porto.
On Monday, we met with Dr. Joao Goulau at the Servico De Invervecaonos Comportamenos Adivitos e nas Dependencias (SICAD). This is the government agency that administers Portugal’s policies with regard to addiction. Dr. Goulau has been around this agency and this approach since it began in 2001. We also went to a drug addiction treatment center, and we toured another drug consumption site (DSR).
On Tuesday, we met with members of Lisbon’s Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, who explained their processes and how they fit into Portugal’s decriminalization program. Again, public consumption is not tolerated in Portugal. But if you are caught using, you aren’t really arrested. Instead, you are usually sent to a detox facility before appearing before your regional Dissuasion Commission. They operate somewhat like drug courts do in Oregon. If you use drugs or alcohol in public, you will be offered treatment. We learned that the vast majority of people accept the offer of treatment. The treatment is, unlike here, readily available without long wait times.
Wednesday was all Saints Day, a holiday in Portugal. I caught up on emails and I went around Lisbon with one of my legislative colleagues and a researcher. We talked to some drug users on the street and police officers. I learned that users do not fear police officers and that rank-and-file police officers have challenges dealing with drug dealers but their country’s approach to drug use allows them to focus on arresting drug dealers.
On Thursday, I met with Dr. Goulau again and a member of Parliament, Alexandre Quintaniha, who, like me, started serving in 2015. He was part of the group that set up the whole approach back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Then we met with Lisbon police leaders who explained the various programs they operate, including programs to encourage young people to not get involved with drugs. It is among the primary prevention programs that they have.
On Friday, I made the long journey back to Oregon, navigating two plane trips and three airports.
I am glad I went. Seeing is believing. There is very little obvious poverty in Portugal. Everyone can have healthcare and though they are experiencing housing challenges due to a surge in tourism and immigration, there is not the kind of tent camping like we have here in Portland. They are also lucky. They do not yet have the scourge of meth and fentanyl that we in the US are experiencing.
There was a broad consensus among every group I met with that Portugal’s decriminalization approach works for their country. The data doesn’t lie. Despite more people trying drugs in Portugal at some point in their life, Portugal is not experiencing an epidemic of addiction like we are in the US and like Portugal did in the 1990s.
If we want more success for our approach here in Oregon, based on what I saw, I think we need a lot more treatment, more housing for people in treatment and a greater police presence with more tools for police to address public use on our streets and in parks. In light of our houseless situation, we need more places for camping to occur that are sanctioned for camping as I don’t believe we will have enough shelter or enough actual housing anytime soon.
That’s it in a nutshell. The Joint Legislative Committee on Addiction and Community Safety that I am serving on is meeting in December and January before the February session so we can listen to the public and figure out what changes we need. Please reach out to me (oregonlegislature.gov/nosse) with your thoughts and ideas.