In Portugal, Harrington sees potential benefits of a nation's drug policy 'success story'
PITTSFIELD — After a recent "learning trip" to Portugal, Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington found a lot to like about the European nation's drug policy, much of which she believes would be of benefit locally.
Harrington and several other district attorneys from around the country, including Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins, went to Portugal in mid-May on a trip sponsored by Fair and Just Prosecution. According to its website, the nonprofit organization "brings together newly elected local prosecutors as part of a network of leaders committed to promoting a justice system grounded in fairness, equity, compassion, and fiscal responsibility."
The crux of the Portugal trip was an opportunity to examine the results of nearly 20 years of a policy decriminalizing personal possession of narcotics that emphasizes treatment over prosecution for most drug offenders.
Harrington said the results of the implementation of that policy have shown significant results.
She said that, in 2000, nearly 1 percent of the Portuguese population was using injection drugs, and the country had the highest rate of drug-related AIDS diagnoses in Europe along with "skyrocketing" overdose deaths. That year, Portugal recorded 369 deaths by overdose, Harrington said.
That number fell to 27 in 2017, after drugs were decriminalized and more public treatment options, including mobile supervised injection sites, were introduced.
"It's been almost 20 years, so it's really not an experiment any longer, it's a definite success story," Harrington said during an interview Thursday with The Eagle.
Harrington drew a distinction between decriminalization and legalization of drugs.
For example, she said, in Portugal it's not a crime to possess personal-use amounts of drugs, while distribution and trafficking remain illegal, putting the emphasis on prosecuting the suppliers and not the end user.
"Legalization is different," she said. "It becomes more of a permissive cultural attitude around normalizing the use of drugs in our society, which I don't think is healthy and it's not something that I advocate for."
She said the law enforcement officials she spoke with told her that decriminalization has led to getting more information, which leads to getting those larger quantities of drugs off the streets.
When people are less fearful of being arrested and jailed for carrying small amounts of drugs, they tend to be more cooperative with law enforcement, she said.
"If you look at the Portugal model and their overdose rates and their addiction rates from prior to decriminalization to after decriminalization, the change is so dramatic, I think it's undeniable that this has been a successful policy," she said.
Harrington said that while she herself can't implement a statewide policy of decriminalization, she does have other options to create something similar in Berkshire County.
"As a local DA, you really have the power to stop the war on drugs here in Berkshire County," she said. "It's up to me and my office and what crimes we prosecute and who we prosecute so I have the ability to not prosecute any case I don't want to prosecute."
That, in effect, would create a de facto policy of decriminalization, she said.
That policy also would incorporate alternatives to jail, such as Berkshire County's Drug Court, which provides an opportunity for those who qualify, to submit to judicial and Probation Department oversight rather than jail.
Harrington said her office is very supportive of the Drug Court program and believes participation has increased since she took office in January. She said that's because her office is not objecting in court to defendants being referred to the program, but instead is supporting such referrals.
Drug Court, though, isn't appropriate for every person, and by the time it's an option, it often comes down to either they accept Drug Court or go to jail.
"We need to get people before they get to that point," said Harrington, who hopes to be able to make the same alternatives to prosecution and incarceration that Drug Court candidates available to more people.
"This is a public health crisis, and it's wound up at the doorstep of the criminal justice system, and we're not going to prosecute our way out of this problem," she said. "If we could, we wouldn't have 40 opioid overdose deaths this year."
Access to treatment
Another component of the Portugal model is a robust public health component that includes more access to treatments like methadone — paid for by the government — and supervised injections sites, where addicts can use their own personal drugs under the supervision of medical professionals and receive information and referrals for treatment.
Harrington said she supports a structural change in policy that moves away from an investment in the criminal justice system to one that favors investment in programs that are going to help people, like health care.
"When you see people that are using drugs, they're not doing that because they're happy or because they're fulfilled, they're doing it because they have pain," she said. "They've suffered trauma, they have mental health issues.
"To me, you can look at data and you can look at numbers and you can have proof for good policymaking, but you can also look at it as a human being, intuitively."
Much of what Harrington hopes to implement in the county would be largely, if not exclusively, paid for through state and federal grants.
If the Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency act introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., passes, Harrington said Berkshire County could receive up to $1.2 million over 10 years to help provide treatment for opioid addiction.
"We can use our discretion to ensure that the criminal justice system doesn't punish people who need help," Harrington said. "We can convene policy and health leaders to work together promoting health- and treatment-based models and we can push for solutions that are grounded in compassion and evidence."
Bob Dunn can be reached at email@example.com, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.