I spent a few days in February of this year in Lisbon with the NGO Crescer as they conducted harm reduction operations in different areas of the city. Since 2001, Portugal has decriminalized all narcotics treating the users as victims of a disease instead of criminals. Since then there has been a massive reduction in crime, and many users have, with the help of NGOs like Crescer, managed to fight the addiction and reintegrate back into society.
Creser conducts outreach to reduce the harm caused by narcotics. Joana Frias, a nurse employed by Crescer, highlights how, for those addicted, free will is often not involved: “No one would choose to live in these conditions.”
Although in America, and many other western countries, narcotics are generally associated with violence, in Lisbon drug addicts can be found living, and using, next to regular citizens. They will carve out a spot for themselves in the rubble of empty factories, or scrape together enough abandoned wood to construct a shack.
Discarded drug paraphernalia is found haloing these areas. Needles are usually either kept by the users to be turned into Crescer outreach program or, after being used, the addicts will break the points off to prevent people from getting pricked accidentally.
Usually, the drug of choice for the heavily addicted is either crack cocaine or heroin. Both can be smoked or injected. Crescer distributes government funded kits containing needles to prevent the spread of HIV. Recently, they have started to distribute pipes in order to encourage users to move away from injecting and so the outreach workers can build closer ties to those that exclusively smoke in the hope that help can be provided. Crescer pays for this out of their own pocket.
Through the efforts of NGOs like Crescer, and a forward-thinking approach by the country in regards to drug policy, many of the negative effects associated with the abuse of narcotics have been limited and contained. Although the prevalence of HIV in the country is still relatively high when compared to the rest of the European Union, Crescer’s executive Director Américo Nave explains that this is mainly from before the harm reduction program came into play.
About the author: C.H. Gardiner is a Canadian photojournalist based out of Rio De Janeiro. His work principally focuses on security issues and social conflict.