Nearly 2,000 people died in Massachusetts in 2017, but many now believe there's a possible solution to the opioid crisis thousands of miles away.
Boston 25 News' Blair Miller traveled to Portugal to see how they are "Ending the Epidemic," for a 30-minute special program on the topic airing on Tuesday, Sept. 4 at 7 p.m.
The country has a population of around 10 million, about the same size as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine combined.
15 years ago, hundreds were dying each year from opioid overdoses, and the number fell all the way to 27 in 2017.
In the heart of the country, it's hard to find any signs of a drug problem that once dominated Lisbon and beyond.
Dr. Joao Goulao, the national coordinator for drugs and drug addiction, said more than 360 people were dying a year from heroin overdoses, and that a drug overdose happened every single day.
Goulao and his team sought out help in the public health area, and focused on ways to both treat and prevent the drug problem.
"Everything based on that we're dealing with a health condition and not a criminal one," Goulao said. "And consequently, we proposed the decriminalization of drug use."
Decriminalizing drugs, but not legalizing drugs.
"Common people were very much in favor of the idea because everyone could say, 'It was difficult to find a Portuguese family without problems.' It is," Goulao said."
Their solutions have been bold and constant, with drug traffickers still handled by police and recreational users caught with drugs landing at the front of a health department committee to decide what kind of treatment they need.
For Rue Coltaz, the answer has been a methodone van that offers medication often used to help people withdraw from heroin use.
Coltaz has been going to the van every day for the last 10 years.
"It feels like nothing," Coltaz said. "Nothing at all."
Coltaz said if he didn't have the van, he would "be on that drug today."
Many in Portugal say they can't imagine what the country would be like today, and how many people would be dying if the drastic changes weren't made.
For more, tune in to the "Ending the Epidemic" special on Boston 25 News at 7 on Sept. 4.
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