Portugal fixed their opioid problem – why can’t we?

In the United States, the punishment for possession of heroin for first-time offenders is up to a year in prison, a $1,000 fine, or both. In Portugal, “punishment” for the same offense is a referral to drug rehab. In the United States, drug addicts are treated like criminals. In Portugal, they are treated like patients.

The differences between how these two countries handle drug addiction don’t end there. While opioid abuse has continued to rise in the United States, while Portugal’s abuse and death rates have fallen significantly in the last few years.

In America, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, someone seeking treatment for a drug addiction can expect to pay up to nearly $5,000 for one year of treatment. A year in jail serving time for drug-related offenses could cost $24,000.

In Europe, drug possession is not a felony — and rehab is free.

Instead of being brought before a judge and receiving a sentence, those in possession of small amounts of illegal drugs are brought before a panel of professionals — a sociologist, a psychologist, and a legal advisor. Treatment is offered during this session, but can be refused. There is no penalty for refusing treatment.

Portugal put this system in place after realizing that the cost of incarceration for drug addiction was more than the cost of treating people with drug addictions. So far, the country has helped thousands of people overcome their addictions and return to the real world.

Drug addiction — opioid abuse specifically — costs the United States billions of dollars annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Much of this financial burden falls upon the American health care system.

The CDC has released recommendations such as discouraging health care professionals from prescribing opioids for chronic pain, though the nature of the guidelines’ impact is not yet known. However, the law’s response to opioid addiction has not changed. All 50 states have yet to officially decriminalize drug abuse of any kind.

Portugal serves as only one example of what can happen when governments offer professional help to those in need, instead of punishing them for a substance abuse problem. But unless the US follows suit, opioid addiction — and opioid-related deaths — may continue to rise.

Did you know an addiction can be caused by a mental disorder?

One of the primary reasons that mental disorders and substance abuse so often go hand-in-hand is that drugs and alcohol can provide an escape from the pressures of mental health problems. Self-medicating is surprisingly common: you’re not alone.

But unlike real, effective, long-term solutions, such as medication and detoxification in a treatment center, drugs and alcohol won’t amount to effective treatment.

If you suspect that your loved one is suffering from addiction, then take our free 3 minute assessment.


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