When Portugal decriminalized possession and consumption of all drugs in 2001, some feared that the radical change would transform the European nation into a paradise for drug users.

That never happened. Instead, Portugal has seen major drops in drug-related overdoses, HIV infections and hepatitis infections. From 2000 to 2008, drug-related court cases dropped 66 per cent.

With legal recreational cannabis sales in Canada beginning next Wednesday, some health officials and politicians have urged the federal government to go further and decriminalize possession of all drugs, pointing to Portugal as a success story.

Among those supporters are public health organizations in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. They say the best way to fight the ongoing opioid crisis, which killed nearly 4,000 Canadians last year, is to treat drugs as a health issue, not a crime.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has vowed to decriminalize all drugs, and he’s called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to do the same.

The federal government has said it is not interested in decriminalizing all drugs. Trudeau has said widespread decriminalization is not the way to deal with the opioid crisis.

But, in some Liberal circles, the Portugal model already has traction. Liberal supporters at the party’s April convention pushed the party to adopt a resolution calling for the government to adopt the approach.

The resolution failed, with Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor saying that the model may not work for a country of Canada’s size, where 10 provinces oversee the delivery health services.

It’s also worth noting the scale of Portugal’s drug crisis. Before the policy was implemented, an estimated 100,000 people in Portugal were addicted to illicit drugs. That’s a whopping 1 per cent of the population.

Penalties for dealers, counselling for users

Today, drugs are still illegal in Portugal, and criminal penalties for drug dealers and traffickers are still in place.

But Portugal changed the law for drug users so that, instead of jail time, they are automatically sent to counselling and offered access to treatment. A special “dissuasion commission” – a drug court, of sorts – was established with psychologists and social workers to hand out treatment or administrative fines to anyone caught with even small amount of drugs.

Portugal’s model also includes prevention. In Lisbon, a white van drives around every day delivering methadone to about 1,200 people. Many of those people are former addicts who describe the deliveries as life-saving.

“There’s no craving anymore. No feeling that I need heroin again,” one man told CTV’s Paul Workman.

Joao Goulao, a drug policy director in Portugal, said the country was united in approaching drug users with compassion.

“My son is not a criminal. My son is someone in need of help. And this was the mindset of the common citizen,” he said.

In 2017, the Liberal government sent two of its top ministers – former health minister Jane Philpott and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould – to Portugal to learn more about the approach.

In a statement following the trip, Wilson-Raybould said Portugal could teach Canada a “great deal” about view drug use through the lens of public health.

With files from CTV’s London Bureau Chief Paul Workman, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press