Talk of drug decriminalization is buzzing in the United States as Democratic presidential candidates, like Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang, throw their support behind a model innovated by Portugal, one of the few countries that has axed policies criminalizing personal possession and replaced them with more harm reduction and treatment resources.
But what’s been a beacon of hope for North American drug policy reformers could be regressing towards punitive approaches that Americans are all too familiar with. On September 30, Rui Moreira, the mayor of Porto, contradicted his past pro-harm reduction positions, like the ones made at the 2019 Harm Reduction International conference in his own city, when he endorsed reintroducing criminal penalties for drug use in public spaces during a municipal assembly meeting.
Drug decriminalization “is not possible,” he said in the meeting, adding that such policies have “consented” to illegal drug trafficking. The mayor expressed he is “a little tired of hearing just about the dignity” of people who use drugs, adding that the policy of decriminalization “simply does not protect the overwhelming majority of the population.” To address this problem that he says is “everywhere,” Rureira is advocating for the installation of over 100 new video surveillance cameras to monitor public streets in an attempt to clamp down on drug use.
The mayor’s perceived pivot comes after he made a surprise announcement earlier this year before an audience of harm reductionists that drug consumption rooms would be arriving in Porto.
“That this statement was made by a mayor who has previously demonstrated support for a health-centred approach to drugs, is particularly concerning,” said Naomi Burke-Shyne, executive director of Harm Reduction International. “Political expediency must not outweigh the safety and security of people who use drugs in Porto.”
Photograph of Mayor Rui Moreira via the City of Porto