An Alternative Approach To The Opioid Crisis


learn about another approach to the opioid crisis

It seems like the methods we are currently using to get in front of this epidemic just aren’t working well enough. Is there another way of thinking about the opioid crisis that we haven’t tried yet?

The use of illicit substances continues to rise in the United States. In 2013, nearly 25 million Americans reported illegal drug use[1]. Unfortunately, the increase in drug use is not the only rising statistic. Heroin related deaths tripled since 2010. In 2015, 12,990 individuals died from heroin overdoses. Yet, due to the overdoses from opioid prescription pain-killers, another 20,101 people died[2]. It is important to note that the United States is not the only country affected by these sobering statistics.

For example, in 1999, Portugal was ravaged by addiction. It was estimated that one percent of their population was dependent on heroin[3]. However, to combat this universal problem Portugal took a unique approach to their opioid crisis. In 2001, they decriminalized all illicit substances.

What is decriminalization? It simply means an individual cannot be criminally charged for the possession of illicit substances. Instead, if a person is found in possession of substances, they are subjected to pay a fine, or they are mandated to substance use treatment. This outcome is determined by two factors; if a person is considered “addicted,” or “non-addicted.” This conclusion is made by the Dissuasion Committee, which consists of three members. One member has a legal background and the other two are comprised of medical and human service personnel[4].

The results stemming from Portugal’s drug decriminalization are nothing short of miraculous[5]. Currently, Portugal has the second lowest drug-related deaths in the European Union, 0.6 deaths per 100,000 people.

In comparison, the United States has the third highest drug-related deaths in the world, 6.96 deaths per 100,000[6].

In addition to the decrease in drug-related deaths, Portugal experienced a 60 percent increase in the utilization of substance use treatment[7]. Furthermore, intravenous drug use decreased by 50 percent and drug related HIV infections fell by 95 percent.

Conversely, drug-related deaths continue to increase in the United States and they are showing no signs of slowing down. Thus, I pose this question: Is decriminalization a viable option for the to adopt to counteract the current opioid epidemic?

Unfortunately, I do not have the answer to this question. However, I do know the punitive approach the United States uses to combat drug use does not work. Addiction is more than an individual’s problem, it is communal suffering. The statistics from Portugal show that an altruistic approach has the potential to save thousands of lives and increase a country’s well-being. In life, we are taught to learn from other people’s successes and failures. Is it possible to adopt this philosophy when it comes to the opioid crisis?

[1] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015, June). Nationwide Trends. Retrieved from

[2] Opioid Addiction 2016 Facts & Figures. (2016). American Society of Addiction Medicine. Retrieved from 

[3] Aleem, Z. (2015, February 11). 14 Years After Decriminalizing All Drugs, Here’s What Portugal Looks Like. Retrieved from after-portugal-decriminalized-all-drugs-here-s-what-s-happening#.Mbk3YpR6e

[4] Greenwald, G. (2009). Drug decriminalization in Portugal: lessons for creating fair and successful drug policies. Washington, D.C.: CATO Institute.

[5] Kain, E. (2012, July 22). Ten Years After Decriminalization, Drug Abuse Down by Half in Portugal. Retrieved from

[6] Drug Use Death Rate By Country. ( 2017 ) . Retrieved from

[7] Baer, D. (2016, April 26). 6 incredible things that happened when Portugal decriminalized all drugs. Retrieved from

By: Ben Backes