LISBON, Portugal – These days, Casal Ventoso is an ordinary blue-collar community — mothers push baby strollers, men smoke outside cafes, buses chug up and down the cobbled main street.
Ten years ago, the Lisbon neighborhood was a hellhole, a “drug supermarket” where some 5,000 users lined up every day to buy heroin and sneak into a hillside honeycomb of derelict housing to shoot up. In dark, stinking corners, addicts — some with maggots squirming under track marks — staggered between the occasional corpse, scavenging used, bloody needles.
At that time, Portugal, like the junkies of Casal Ventoso, had hit rock bottom: An estimated 100,000 people — an astonishing 1 percent of its population — were addicted to illegal drugs. So, like anyone with little to lose, the Portuguese took a risky leap: They decriminalized the use of all drugs in a groundbreaking law in 2000.