Portugal’s ‘Drug Czar’ visits RI

As the United States continues to fight the opioid crisis Rhode Island is taking a look at how other countries are handling it.

The Drug Czar in Portugal was invited to Brown University through the COBRE Center at Rhode Island Hospital to show politicians and medical professionals here how the country’s dramatically different approach is apparently making a difference.

Dr. Joao Goulao is Portugal’s National Coordinator for Drugs.

It was almost 20 years ago when Portugal was facing an epidemic of its own and Dr. Goulao spearheaded the effort to decriminalize all drug use in the country by taking an aggressive approach to treatment.

The focus was to get people the help they needed instead of throwing them behind bars.

“A balanced approach between supply reduction and demand reduction in a framework of decriminalization of drug use,” Goulao said. “Our main priority is to offer treatment for all those in need of it.”

Dr. Goulao said with this approach, the country has seen a decrease in deaths as well as the transmission of certain diseases like HIV.

“It’s the way to really develop an effective policy towards the drug problem,” he said. “We did not solve all the drug problems but it’s a minor problem.”

Dr. Jody Rich, professor of medicine at epidemiology at Brown believes this approach should be the gold standard when it comes to fighting addiction.

“Overdoses have all but disappeared in Portugal. Whereas in this country our overdose rates are skyrocketing,” Dr. Rich said. “This shines a light on how we should move forward in Rhode Island.”

In Portugal, there is universal health care which America does not have. Although Sen. Joshua Miller, Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, believed it would still work here, as money would be going to treatment instead of costly incarceration.

“I think we can actually make a better case in America for this kind of model than we can in Europe where there is universal health care,” Miller said.

In Portugal, law enforcement focuses on taking down drug dealing networks while users are still subject to things like fines and community service.

Dr. Goulao will speak to the governor’s task force on opioids on Wednesday.