'It's not a crime to use drugs': How Northern Ireland can learn from Portugal on drug crisis

  • WATCH: Dr Manuel Cordosa speaks to Up Close

A Portuguese drugs policy expert, who helps run a programme of decriminalisation, says addicts need to considered as "sick people in need of help" with addiction treated as "a chronic disease".

Dr Manuel Cordosa was speaking to UTV’s award-winning current affairs programme Up Close about the policy, as Belfast battles a growing problem of illegal drug use on the city's streets.

"Today, it is not a crime to use drugs," explained Dr Manuel Cordosa, the Deputy Director of SICAD, the organisation that runs the programme.

The programme involved the decriminalisation of the public and private taking of all illegal drugs for personal use, with an aim to reduce the number of HIV/AIDS cases, half of which came from injection drug use.

"If the police catch someone using drugs what they do, they... have a discussion and counselling with this person and try to help them to try and change their behaviour," said Dr Cordosa, who spoke to Up Close.

"They can help these people to do what is needed to reduce or stop using these kind of drugs.

"It works because the whole workforce, the health workforce and the police force works to help these people, not to punish them but to help them to stop or reduce consumption."

Portugal uses a two strand approach, according to Dr Cordoba, helping people to stop taking drugs, and also trying to reduce drug trafficking in cities.

"In Portugal what they do is, for one, helping people to stop and the other is to fight the traffickers and try to reduce the drug trafficking in our cities.

"Drug addicts need to be considered a sick person in aid of help. Addiction is a condition - a chronic disease," Dr Cordoba said.

Leading figures from voluntary organisations dealing with substance abuse in the UK have praised Portugal's strategy.

"I think we can learn a lot from Portugal," said Iain Cameron from Extern, the Belfast-based drugs outreach group.

"Portugal did invest heavily in their treatment services as well as looking at the whole decriminalisation issue," explained Iain.

Annemarie Ward from Faces and Voices of Recovery UK also believes we can learn a lot from Portugal - she is based in Glasgow, which, like Belfast, is also seeing a drugs crisis.

"It's not decriminalisation that saves lives, it's really good treatment, rehabilitation that saves lives - that's how we need to invest our money," she told Up Close.

  • WATCH: Annemarie Ward speaks to Up Close:

"Currently at the moment, the majority of treatment goes into really brilliant and excellent harm reduction interventions," Annemarie said.

"We need to be spending the same amount of money on helping people get off drugs, get well and start to rebuild their lives again.

"Until we start to look at the bigger picture, we're not going to tackle this at all - we're going to be putting a sticking plaster on a massive wound.

Responding to what should be done, Superintendent Amanda Ford from the PSNI says we need to build on the good work on the ground.

Superintendent Amanda Ford Credit: UTV

"We need to be more innovative in how we tackle it and how we protect the most vulnerable in society so I certainly think there's room for exploring those avenues," she told Up Close.

"We are bound by government departments and we'll take our lead from there.

"There's certainly hope - it's really positive to see the amount of multi-agency work that takes place and the number of stakeholders that are involved.

Iain Cameron from Extern believes that Belfast's stark number of drug related deaths means that the use of overdose prevention facilities should be considered, which are available in Portugal.

"We need to remember that overdose prevention facilities aren't just about preventing overdose - they're a good resource for a reduction in inappropriate, discarded injecting equipment which we have a big problem with in the city at the moment and we need to tackle it," he said.

  • WATCH: Iain Cameron speaks to Up Close:

In response, a spokesperson from the Department of Health said: "Drugs Consumption Rooms or Overdose Prevention Facilities are not currently permitted under the UK-wide Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

"The department is aware of discussions and proposals on this issue in both Scotland and the Republic of Ireland and is watching developments closely.

"The department will continue to monitor the evidence in respect of effective interventions and develop new proposals, within the wider legislative framework, as appropriate."

The statement continued: "It is important to note however that a range of services - from education, prevention and awareness raising to harm reduction and inpatient treatment and support - are available for those who require help and support with substance use, and for their families.

"It is vital that people seek help and support for substance use issues and a directory of services available in each Health and Social Trust area across Northern Ireland is available here. However, in recognising this as a growing issue and the growing concern and harm related to substance use, in September 2021 the Department of Health launched a new 10 year strategy for Substance Use "Preventing Harm, Empowering Recovery".

"Extensive work is underway to develop a new strategic plan for substance use services which will seek to improve the availability, accessibility and quality of the support provided across Northern Ireland.

"In addition, the Department and the Health and Social Care system are continuing to work collectively with key partner organisations to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society. " It should be noted however, that full implementation of the new substance use strategy will be dependent on the availability of additional resources to meet the growing demand," the spokesperson added.

You can watch the full programme here:

The Public Health Agency has a range of services offering support for addiction. To find a service near you visit

Mental health crisis helpline Lifeline can be contacted on 0808 808 8000.

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