Former White House Drug Czar Highlights Lessons from Portugal's Drug Decriminalization

Former White House Drug Czar Highlights Lessons from Portugal’s Drug Decriminalization

Regina LaBelle, a former acting White House drug czar, has praised Portugal’s approach to drug decriminalization and called for the United States to learn from its success. In an op-ed published in The Hill, LaBelle emphasized the need to treat addiction as a public health issue and adopt harm reduction strategies.

Portugal’s groundbreaking drug policy included decriminalizing personal drug possession while maintaining penalties for drug trafficking. LaBelle pointed out that Portugal faced a severe heroin addiction crisis and had the highest rate of HIV infections in the European Union at the time. However, the country’s public health-based approach resulted in positive outcomes, including significantly lower drug overdose death rates compared to other European Union countries.

LaBelle, who held positions in the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) under the Obama and Biden administrations, highlighted three key lessons from Portugal that could benefit the United States. First, she emphasized the importance of treating addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal legal matter. Second, substantial and consistent funding should be invested in public health services, including treatment and harm reduction programs. Lastly, robust financial investments in data collection and reporting are crucial to understanding the effectiveness of drug policies.

While the current administration has supported harm reduction policies and reevaluating marijuana’s scheduling status, broad drug decriminalization has not been officially endorsed by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. LaBelle’s op-ed adds to the growing chorus of voices advocating for a shift in drug policy towards a public health-centered approach.

As discussions around drug decriminalization continue to gain traction, experts and organizations, including the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and major medical groups like the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) and American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), have voiced their support for decriminalization as a means to address public health and racial equity concerns.

By embracing Portugal’s lessons and adopting a compassionate, public health-centered approach to drug policy, the United States has an opportunity to improve outcomes, save lives, and effectively address the ongoing overdose crisis.

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