Pols to travel to Portugal to study opioid ‘solutions’
A delegation of state legislators is going to Portugal to review its decriminalization of opioids this week — but other top elected officials are raising concerns about importing the European nation’s policy here.
Senate President Karen Spilka, in a press release, called the trip a “unique opportunity” to gain insight into “possible solutions” for the ongoing opioid crisis, as well as discussing economic and security issues. She could not be reached for comment yesterday.
But Mayor Martin J. Walsh said yesterday, “Decriminalization is not the way to go. You don’t have to study more than a day to know that if you don’t do drugs, you won’t be a drug addict.”
Gov. Charlie Baker argued that for the past 15 years there has been a “huge overuse” of opioid medication, and he was doubtful on how decriminalization might mitigate the issue.
“They are clearly extremely addictive,” Baker said of the drugs. “I’m open to thoughts and ideas, but I would argue that we had a system in the United States called ‘prescribing’ which was legal and that created the crisis we have right now, so I’m going to be a kind of a hard sell on the notion that that’s the right way to fix this.”
Sen. Michael Rodrigues of Westport is leading the group of 14 legislative colleagues, including Spilka, on the trip to Portugal.
“We’re going to keep an open mind,” Rodrigues said about drug policy. “We don’t know if it’s a model that can be replicated because we have a different criminal justice system in the U.S. and we have a different health care delivery system in the U.S. But it would be interesting to learn from them, to hear from them, what they’ve learned since they’ve switched to this model.”
“Wherever we can make efforts on the road to saving lives and preventing folks from overdosing, I think we have to be open to what that looks like,” Rep. James O’Day said. “Apparently they’ve caught onto something over there and I’m really looking forward to having the opportunity to listen and learn as to what they’re doing.”
The agenda for the trip includes a Thursday meeting with Luso-American Development Foundation and Nuno Capaz, director of the Dissuasion Commission, to talk about Portugal’s 2001 decriminalization of opioids. Portuguese police no longer arrest anyone holding a small amount of opioids. Those people are directed to “dissuasion” panels to determine whether they should be sent to rehab, counseling or methadone treatment, though cases can also be suspended. News reports cite drops in drug use, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and disease rates.
Sen. William Brownsberger, who is going on the trip, said, “We have to be all about reducing the harms that opiates are causing. I think it’s important to understand alternative models. One of the things I’ve come to feel strongly about are words like decriminalization, to understand what that means. There are a million ways to do that, a million degrees to do that, I’d like to understand what they’re doing in fact.”
Chelsea police Chief Brian Kyes, president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs Association, said most departments in the state are already connecting people struggling with addiction to services and resources in their respective communities.
“It’s the old adage, we repeat it over and over and over again. We’re not going to arrest our way out of the problem,” Kyes said. “As a police chief — if some place else in Massachusetts or another country — if someone is doing something better or innovative, I’m all over it. But my take back is we in general in this state we are doing that already.”
Jared Owen of the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, said, “People with addictions should get treatment rather than going to jail and obviously we believe if somebody commits a serious crime they do need to pay their debt to society.”
The lawmakers are paying for their own air travel and hotel costs, according to a press release. The Luso-American Development Foundation has offered to sponsor in-country transportation and some meals for the group.
Sean Philip Cotter and Taylor Pettaway contributed to this report.