While Luxembourg can be considered a pioneering country in certain areas, it could certainly learn a thing or two from Portugal. The fourth instalment from our colleagues at RTL 5minutes looks at substance dependence.

Portugal decriminalised individual drug consumption back in 2000. The idea behind it was to help rather than to punish consumers, who are not regarded as criminals, but as ill.

This policy, as we know twenty years later, has most definitely borne fruit. In the 1990s, Portugal held the European record for AIDS deaths, and almost one per cent of the population was addicted to heroin, which called for reforms in the legal and public health system.

As a result, the rate of drug-induced deaths is now five times lower than the European average (4 deaths per million). Similarly, Portugal has divided the number of new HIV infections by 18, and there are half as many heroin addicts as in 1999.

What about Luxembourg? 

Luxembourg is in a rather good place in terms of substance dependence: the rate of drug-induced deaths is decreasing, as are new HIV infections. Luxembourg also has one of the highest coverage rates of sterile syringe distribution per user in Europe.

The rate of drug-related deaths remains higher than in Portugal, though. However, with a rate of 23 deaths per million in 2019, it does remain well below the European average, for good reason: the Grand Duchy has taken some steps towards providing care for drug addicts. Facilities such as the Abrigado were opened, as well as a legal framework for shooting galleries are provided for from as early as 2001.

However, Luxembourg has experienced other drug-related problems in recent years. Indeed, between 2014 and 2017, the Grand Duchy experienced a concerning upsurge in cases of seropositivity among the country's drug addicts.

This resulted in a testing campaign that revealed that one in 10 drug addicts (PWID) were HIV positive, and three quarters of them resulted positive for Hepatitis C. These statistics made Luxembourg one of the European Union's red zones in this area.

Fortunately, the number of new infections has dropped significantly since 2017. In 2018, the Grand Duchy recorded 'only' four new HIV infections compared to the 21 in 2016. When asked about this epidemic, the national drugs coordinator, Dr. Alain Origer, confirmed that the situation was now under control.

Although Luxembourg is slowly moving in the right direction in terms of care for drug users, with one of the highest rates of opioid users receiving substitution treatment in Europe, for example, the problem of penalising drug users remains unresolved.

In the opposite direction of decriminalisation 

As the Grand Duchy has not decriminalised individual consumption and possession of hard drugs so far, many drug addicts end up in prison. Indeed, according to the EMCDDA, drug-related offences are those which most often lead to imprisonment in Luxembourg.

These offences accounted for a fifth of prison admissions for men, and almost a third of admissions for women in 2017. And, according to a recent report from the Ministry of Health, the majority of defendants were involved in possession or personal use, while only a small proportion of defendants were involved in supplying or trafficking drugs. 
This shows that dealers face less criminal consequences than criminals in Luxembourg - an approach that is completely different from Portuguese policy.

There are definitely indicators that Luxembourg's penal system could benefit from a Portuguese inspired legislation. However, when questioned on this topic during the presentation of the National Plan on Illegal Drugs 2020-24, the Minister of Health insisted that decriminalising drug consumption was not on the government's agenda.

'Portugal reacted to an emergency situation'

The reason behind the government's stance on drug policy is explained by Dr Alain Origer. He states that Portugal reacted to an emergency, when the country was experiencing a disastrous social situation with the highest HIV infection rate in Europe.

They created a model that worked for them, but not necessarily for everyone else. Given that Luxembourg does not have alarming figures, the model is not that appealing to policy makers.
Besides, decriminalisation was not the only thing that led to the improvement of substance dependence. The development of prevention and care for drug addicts is also essential, according to Dr Origer.

He does emphasise that there are always too many people who are subject to illegal substance dependence, but he believes that the cannabis regulation project already takes up a lot of time and effort. A country cannot do everything at the same time, he stresses.
Indeed, the government is currently working on the legislation that will govern the legalisation of cannabis, a project that had to be delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

For now, we know that Luxembourg is moving towards better care for drug addicts, despite it not intending to follow Portugal's example. Dr Origer, too, believes that the penal system for drugs should be improved.