Letter written by a Portuguese doctor to a Journalist from Der Spiegel

The letter below was written by a Portuguese doctor to a Journalist from Der Spiegel who had printed an article about how successful Portuguese drug policy was. Dr.Coelho shows how the journalist clearly had pre-conceived ideas about the article he was writing and how he totally ignored evidence disputing many of his assumptions. Readers in Germany will not have been able to decide for themselves on evidence, having only read a biased and one sided version of events. The media worldwide have powerful influences on the public and we should, wherever possible, call them to task over inaccurate or downright untruthful reporting. Whether they would publish is another story……

Dear Wiebke,

Reading your article was, surprisingly, a disappointment. I´m sorry to say. You´ve come to Portugal to independently investigate and write a piece on the Portuguese drug policy experiment, but actually, after reading your article, one thing has become clear to me – impartiality is not your game.

What does one do when writing an impartial depiction on a given situation? One listens to every intervening party and to what they have to say and, then translate that to contextualized writing, allowing the essential juicy content about each party to surface in rigorous replication. And that…you did not do.

You have created a skewed depiction on this reality. If on one side of the scale you have placed a fairly detailed description about the official decriminalization policy, its origins, it´s protagonists, it´s numbers and statistics, it´s routines and philosophy; on the other side you were exceedingly scarce and vague with presenting information, the real objective information that contradicts the established thought current.

You´ve limited your words to just saying that there is an opposing character, me, who´s against it all. You say I´m against decriminalization. You say I´m at odds with former colleagues and with “the system”. You say my greatest concern is that my country has given up on the idea of a drug-free world. You say I´m fighting the extensive methadone program (which is actually an incorrect statement). You say that my critical perspective has made me an outsider in my own country. And you say that I don´t agree with Goulão about drug users not being criminals and being sick. And that is, unfortunately, how you´ve summarized my words. Other than that, there´s only you characterizing me with romanticized redundancies that, although perhaps entertaining for the reader, share absolutely NO real information about the issue at hand. And don´t get me wrong – I do not mind being shaped into a character, I get it, it´s more entertaining to read and it´s just a matter of style. What I do mind is when that is done at the expenses of vital core information not appearing. Because ultimately, that is what serving the public is all about, providing information so they can think and decide for themselves. And my filtered and randomly picked phrases or my persona are, absolutely not the point. They are secondary to the technical information I provide, So, where is it?

You see, I did not pick this side of the coin just because I like to contradict and annoy people. I simply cannot ignore the contradicting evidence that presents itself before my eyes and, I feel obligated to contribute with my accumulated knowledge because I feel my help can prevent a whole number of painful situations, which I see are being neglected. I feel it is my duty to act and inform. And I think that that should just as well be yours.

And then you do worse. The ONLY reference that you make to any documentation provided by me is in a description of me showing you a “brief and skeptically worded fact sheet”, “as if” I were “offering proof”, so you say. So, once again, absolutely no concrete data, no content whatsoever is being conveyed to the reader. Just a description of me

handing you sheets of paper. Is that an honest representation of what happened? Far from it. Is that valuing my contribution? Absolutely not. Misleading? Yes indeed.

You were at my house interviewing me for about 3 to 4 hours. I provided you with a whole amount of technical and statistical information, and plenty of documentation based on official sources. After that, you continued to ask questions by email, and I continued to provide you with answers and more documentation. And, of all that documentation and data, what was the only thing that you´ve found worthy of reference? That I have shown you a brief and skeptically worded fact sheet, “as if offering proof”. And let me tell you that I love your subtle vote of distrust in these words – “as if offering proof”. So, what you are saying is, that I might not be showing any proof after all, I´m just acting “as if” I were. Lovely.

A few further inaccuracies to be corrected: you say I fight the extensive methadone program. Not quite true. As I´ve told you before, I believe methadone to be useful in a whole variety of situations. What I absolutely cannot agree with is the decision of making it solely the only practice, applied to every opioid dependent. Making it close to impossible for full remissions and recoveries to happen. Do you realize what that means in someone´s life? It means they´ll be a dependent forever. They´ve changed drugs, but they continue being dependents. And that is a huge heavy burden to carry. They´re self-confidence is always shattered even if they don´t show it. They carry the stigma with them permanently in self-corroding secrecy, always self-conscious about it. Their functioning in the world is always compromised by that. It is quite ludicrous that something as simple as allowing a dependent to have a full drugless recovery, should be eradicated, just because it means more state money spent. In my opinion, the toll is much higher for everybody when such a large part of the population is being maintained in a state of numbness – an opioid is an opioid…

And when I say drugless recovery, I don´t mean “cold turkey” remission, which was another inaccuracy of yours. There is absolutely no need for the recovering dependent to experience the agony and pain of the chemical physical dependence during the remissive process, they already have them in large amounts in their “lives”, and I never did recommend it. So, once again, “cold turkey withdrawals” are not something I would recommend as being the best treatment.

So, to conclude, your article is biased, clearly favoring decriminalization and the Portuguese policy´s point of view. And that was something that you had already established long before meeting me. But just as basic academic rules dictate, you had to have a pinch of contradictory salt – the opposing character. Just a slight colorful adornment to the text to make it seem better founded. But my foundations were overlooked and disregarded, avoided. They were never your focus.

But I understand your context now. You have an agenda, just like Der Spiegel probably does. I noticed in another recent issue of the magazine, an article about how the German state spends 4 billion euros in fighting drugs, and mentioning how a lot of people now believe that decriminalization drug consumption is the way. I don´t condemn your points of view, it´s a current attractive trend, I´m aware of that, and everyone´s entitled to believe whatever seems better to their eyes. I just think that rigor and honesty should not be compromised when it comes to allowing different voices to be heard.

Having said that, if Der Spiegel should be interested in portraying the both sides of the coin more consistently, you are welcome to attend the “I International Congress on Drugs & Dependencies: Recovery is possible”, in Lisbon, next May 23, 24 and 25.

Sincerely at your disposal, Manuel Pinto Coelho

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