Approaches to Addiction: Britain and Portugal 

The UK’s current approach to tackling drugs is through a criminalisation process, whereby substance users are prosecuted and then rehabilitated in prison. But is this the most effective way to tackle the UK’s drug problem? Is this not failing people with substance addiction?

Addressing Addiction as a Public Health Matter

Various countries within Europe are beginning to change their approaches to drugs and the issues associated with them by viewing drugs as a public health problem. Instead of prosecuting people, the governments attempt to provide more support by helping people with their addictions.

Portugal in particular opted to decriminalise all drugs back in 2000, choosing to use the public health matter approach instead. In addition, it has appeared to be successful from a statistical standpoint. 

For example, in 1999, there were 369 deaths as a result of a drug overdose, but in 2016, there were only 30 deaths. Elsewhere there were also decreases in the number of HIV infections connected with drug use, as well as crimes related to substance use. 

However, from a social standpoint, it appears that there is still a stigma attached to drug use in Portuguese society that connects it with crime. In addition, there are a lot of ongoing debates about the legal status of drugs in Portugal and if the country should continue in the same manner.

Should the UK Adopt the Public Health Matter Approach?

The data is certainly encouraging, and Portugal’s approach to helping people with drug addictions through providing greater access to treatment, harm reduction services, and support services is very much in line with the UK’s rehabilitative mindset when it comes to helping prisoners.

But would this model work in the UK? Well, it might potentially help the UK to reduce its costs in terms of its approach. For instance, the UK government reportedly spends as much as £1.6 billion per year on its anti-drug policy, while Portugal spends tens of millions that it invests into rehabilitation and healthcare for substance use disorders.

With the UK’s drug problem continually increasing, it’s clear that its approach is not working, and what’s more, it’s simply not cost-effective when compared to other countries in Europe. 

Additionally, this is even more concerning when considering the UK’s current cost-of-living crisis and the impact that Brexit has had on the UK economy. It might be time to reevaluate policies and spending once again, and perhaps replicating Portugal’s approach to drug policy might be a good start.

On the other side of the argument, it’s also important to remember that Portugal went through a cultural shift when it introduced its decriminalisation of drugs. Changing the majority of people’s views and stigma attached to drug use takes time, and if this were introduced in the UK, it would take a great deal of change to transform the perception of drugs and drug use.

Moreover, many features of Portugal’s current approach already exist in the UK’s current drug policy in terms of harm reduction and support services for people dealing with substance use issues. 

The key question is whether or not giving people information and support instead of prosecution and support would actually be more beneficial, and if it would contribute towards decreasing the worryingly high numbers associated with drugs in the UK.

The UK’s War On Drugs

In addition to increased spending, increases in drug overdoses, and rising numbers in prosecutions related to drug use and possession, the UK government has also increased policing powers in this area in more recent years, with harmful consequences as a result.

For instance, stop-and-searches were increased within the past five years, and it was noticed that there was a particular focus on ethnic minorities. This led to several spectators suggesting that there is a problem of structural racism within the police force in connection with the UK’s drug problem.

An introduction of a new drug policy that focuses on introducing more care and support for substance use disorders, as opposed to punishment, will not be the answer to the structural racism issue. However, it certainly would help with the problem and would help people to get the support and healthcare they need to beat addiction.

The UK government’s approach is a ‘zero tolerance’ policy with the idea that it is a never-ending war that seeks to punish people for misusing drugs, in an effort to reduce drug use, decrease addiction numbers, and also decrease drug overdose-related deaths. 

But given that the numbers clearly indicate that the policy is failing, can the UK government realistically continue forward with this policy in its current form? Clearly, there is a dire need either for decriminalisation, or the need for several changes to the current approach.

The UK government’s response at this time indicates that they are unwilling to discuss the possibility of decriminalisation, and are completely against the legalisation of cannabis. Moreover, the shadow cabinet is also unwilling to open a recourse on the matter.

Getting Help With Addiction

While the UK might have its problems with its drug policy, there are still many types of care options and addiction treatments available from a variety of different places that can help people dealing with a substance use disorder.

Inpatient and outpatient treatment programmes are available at NHS clinics, private medical centres, NHS hospitals, home detox services and residential treatment centres (also known as rehab), catering to people’s needs in a variety of ways.

Treatment can come in the form of medical detox procedures that enable people to break their physical dependency on a drug. People go through the withdrawal symptoms with the assistance and support of trained healthcare specialists who monitor them throughout the entire process.

Elsewhere there are countless different forms of therapy, counselling, and programmes (such as the 12-step and 4-step programmes) that are designed to provide people with the emotional support and encouragement they need in their recovery journey.

Help and support is never too far away, and the treatment available in the UK can help people to get back in control of their lives, avoid relapse, and move forward once again.