It was known as the biggest drugs supermarket in Europe. A shanty town on a hill to which 5,000 junkies a day would flock to peddle their lethal wares or get their fix.
People using needles in the street hardly raised an eyebrow. Dead bodies lying around on the pavement were a common morning sight.
Casal Ventoso was not just a mad, bad neighbourhood of Lisbon. It was a byword for hell in a country ravaged by narcotics abuse.
Portugal’s drugs tzar Dr Joao Goulao says: “Almost every morning we’d find dead bodies. Around 5,000 came every day to buy, sell and take drugs. The impact on public health was huge.”
Then something happened that changed it all. Because 14 years ago, Portugal – faced with 100,000 drug addicts as we approached the new millennium – did the unthinkable.
Before: Shanty town Casal Vantoso
After: Town looks better today
The Government stopped prosecuting caught Class A users if they could prove their stuff was for personal use. It began looking at its drugs crisis as a medical rather than a criminal issue.
Since July 2001, anyone can possess a gram of heroin, two of cocaine, 25 of marijuana leaves, five of hashish and one of ecstasy without punishment. Critics warned Portugal would become Europe’s drugs capital.
But it didn’t happen. Instead, the number of addicts in Portugal has HALVED with most on treatment programmes.
Fatal overdoses have dropped to three per million. In the UK, that figure is 44.6 per million – 14 times higher.
A team from the Home Office has been among politicians and health professionals from around the world flocking here.
Last week there was a delegation from Norway and in the past Croatia and Ireland have sent officials.
Anti-drug campaigners like Sir Richard Branson have also been welcomed to witness this phenomenon – how to tackle the growing global drugs problem in a way no one ever believed could work.
Drug problem: Junkies and dealers in town years ago
Desolate: Area attracted drug dealers and users
And today, Casal Ventoso is deserted. Dr Goulao explains: “This wasn’t about criminality. It was just a way of life. I once saw an 80-year-old woman selling heroin through her window and giving away a bowl of soup with it.”
Dr Goulao, 61, says the seeds of the country’s drugs nightmare were sown in the 70s when soldiers returning from conflicts in Africa started using to unwind. “Suddenly cocaine and heroin was everywhere,” he says.
“And it penetrated right through society. We suddenly went from being one of the lowest users in Europe to one per cent of our population of 10million being hooked on heroin.”
It was Dr Goulao and a team of judges, psychiatrists and social workers who came up with the radical overhaul of addicts’ treatment.
Alongside relaxing personal possession, bosses who give work to drug users get tax breaks, while the Government pays the salaries of those in programmes.
Users caught with more than the agreed possession but lower than intent to supply have the choice of seeing a board made up of a judge, psychiatrist and social worker instead of court.
Now 80 to 90 per cent of those seen by the board opt for help to quit.
Repeat offenders might be given community service, but addicts will never be fined. Instead they are urged to visit the city’s health centres for monthly testing and treatment.
We are taken to the streets, to watch this drugs revolution in action in the city’s Harm Reduction Programme. Under a flyover a white van pulls up. It’s surrounded by more than a dozen people.
An hour and a half later 70 have been given their fix of heroin substitute methadone or had dirty needles swapped. The van will criss-cross Lisbon’s seven hills treating more than 350 on its morning run.
Looking at the diverse backgrounds of those queuing for an opiate-filled plastic cup from Hugo Faria’s team of psychologists, it’s obvious addiction here affects all walks of life.
Married couples turn up in new Audis and Land Rovers, while a Mercedes bus ferries others to this mobile help centre. A 30-something guy turns up on a mountain bike as another regular turns up in a smart blue office suit.
A painter and decorator checks in. Then a cab driver. Then a neatly dressed middle aged woman joins the queue.
Hugo says: “You would never think of her as having a drug problem by the way she is dressed. But we have all sorts here.”
Proof that this is working comes from the EU’s Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction which shows Portugal has just three fatal overdoses per million in 15 to 64-year-olds.
Rates of HIV, hepatitis and TB, sky high in the 90s, have also plunged. Hugo’s team carries out regular tests on the addicts they see regularly at their methadone and needle exchange vans, including chest X-rays to check for TB.
Dangerous: Drug paraphernalia
But it is the attitude of the addicts and their willingness to help that suggests the Portuguese are on a winner.
Crack-smoking Marco, 40, spots a dirty needle in the gutter. He hands it in. He says: “I don’t like needles. They’re a problem to people’s health. I smoke cocaine, but not every day.” Years ago, he would be in jail.
Health services worker Maria Carmona, drives the van to another area of the city where they hand out fresh foil, needle exchanges and pipes to smoke crack.
In an abandoned, purple Mercedes opposite some flats, four men are crammed inside smoking heroin. The addicts respond to Maria with the kind of respect a patient does to a doctor. She says: “We don’t judge. It’s about harm reduction.”
Back in the city centre on a cobbled street where tourists wander, a green door opens into a drop-in centre where addicts are greeted with open arms. Its counsellor knows their plight only too well. Magda Ferreira says she “wasted too many years on heroin” after being hooked at 16.
Now 42, she says: “Nowadays you can come to places like this and make sure you stay safe.”
Helping: Drug kits handed out
The extent of the problem Portugal faced a generation ago is brought home by former Casal Ventoso drug addict Diogo Pereira, 50.
He got clean 15 years ago “I was 30 when I had my first experience of heroin. Lisbon was a much different place then. People would be shooting up in the streets. It was a sh** place.”
Digo lived in Casal Ventoso for more than a year. “It was like hell, but it was also a community,” he said.
Now the shanty town has been bricked up – an eerie memorial to how Portugal used to be.
The Government can no longer ignore Portugal’s success with decriminalisation, say drugs law experts Release.
Spokesman Edward Fox said: “Much of the case against it is based on the flawed argument that decriminalisation promotes drug use.
"Evidence from Portugal and over 20 other jurisdictions worldwide shows this is simply not the case.”
And Transform Drug Policy Foundation agrees.
Spokesman Steve Rolles said: “When it comes to youth drug use, drug deaths, HIV rates, Portugal is looking very good.”
However Mike Penning, Britain's Minister for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice and Victims, says drugs must remain illegal.
“Drugs ruin lives and destroy families and communities. We must ensure law enforcement agencies stop the supply of drugs and the organised crime associated with it," he said.
"There are positive signs our approach works, with a downward trend in drug use over the last decade.”
Punishment is donation to charity
Caught: DJ Sebastian
Agitated Sebastian Azevedo is pacing the reception of the small waiting room before being seen by one of Portugal’s “dissuasion boards”.
The ‘DCT’ panels made up of a judge, psychologist and social worker daily see around four people caught with a small amount of drugs – including class A.
Hash user DJ Sebastian, 21, is typical of the users who go through this system instead of going to court.
He is seen by a psychologist before the panel decide what to do.
Because he has been caught for the second time in four years, he cannot get away with a ticking off and is instead given the chance to pay 25 euros to charity rather than as a fine.
He says: “I suppose it will make me think a bit more about using, and at least the money can go to charity.”
Pyschologist Raquel Lopes said: “We think they can learn something from the sanctions we impose.”
The number of CDT hearings held in Lisbon in 2013 was 1,218 out of 8,779 across Portugal.
That total has already been exceeded this year, partly because police are now more willing to send people they catch.