British Columbia

B.C. doctors look to Portugal for drug decriminalization lessons

Thousands of health officials and advocates, including top B.C. doctors, are gathered in Portugal this week to talk about addressing the overdose crisis though decriminalization.

Portugal has had a unique harm reduction and decriminalization policy since 2001

Portugal's drug crisis has stabilized to the point where it now has one of the lowest fatal overdose rates in the world. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Thousands of health officials and advocates, including top B.C. doctors, are gathered in Portugal this week to talk about addressing the overdose crisis though decriminalization.

Portugal has long been hailed for its progressive policies on drugs, which have been decriminalized since 2001.

"The Portugal model has been tremendous in removing some of the criminal penalties associated with drug use," said Ryan McNeil, who is with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use.

"For those of us in B.C. who are pushing for progressive drug policy reforms … that's the direction that most of us want to see it go."

He is in Portugal for the Harm Reduction International 2019 conference.  

Portugal's model

Portugal has an unusual drug policy. People can have the equivalent of an up-to-10 day individual supply for a drug without being charged.

But one of the key pieces, according to McNeil, is the support in place for those caught with drugs.

"They can have access to [treatment] services and supports to limit some of the harms associated with their drug use," he told CBC's The Early Edition.

"They would seldom be put on a pathway toward incarceration in the same way that they would in Canada."

Portugal was once ridden with a heroin epidemic that affected about one per cent of the country's population. By 2016, the country had one of the lowest fatal overdose rates in the world, according to a United Nations World Drug report.

Others in B.C., including the province's health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, have also publicly called for decriminalization in the past.

A recent report by the provincial health officer stressed decriminalization as "a fundamental underpinning and [a] necessary" next step for the provincial response to the overdose crisis.

"We're in the middle of one of the most devastating public health crises that's ever hit Canada, and it's not being met by the kind of concerted and impactful legislative action that needs to happen," McNeil said.

"Certainly, one hopes that people will have the political bravery to stand up and make the change happen."

Thousands of health officials and advocates, including top B.C. doctors, are gathered in Portugal this week to talk about addressing the overdose crisis though decriminalization. 7:27

With files from The Early Edition