When it comes to drug use and addiction, it’s easy for someone who hasn’t been affected by drugs to criticize. A common argument goes something like this: Well, they made the conscious choice to get and use the drug in the first place It’s their problem. As we will explore below, however, drug addiction is a far more complex matter. Plus, any family member or friend comes to realize sooner or later, past all the confusion, sadness and anger, they just want that hurt person to heal. That’s why there is a push for governments to start treating drug use and addiction as a health problem – not a crime problem.
The War on Drugs (and Why It’s a Huge Failure)
In 1971, president Richard Nixon declared drug abuse America’s number one public enemy. This declaration birthed a global campaign which everyone knows today as The War on Drugs. Some of you may be wondering, or already know, how it’s going. It’s almost fifty years later, and many people would argue that it has been a dismal failure that has resulted in five things:[1,2]
- Mass incarceration in the U.S.
- Political destabilization
- Violence (especially in Latin America, Africa, and Asia)
- Systemic human rights abuses around the globe
What’s worse? While the lives of millions upon millions of people continue to be directly and indirectly negatively affected, governments have spent over 1 trillion dollars to date and only seemed to fuel more drug cartels, use, and addiction. Unfortunately, it seems like the true goal of the war on drugs – a world without drugs – is becoming less and less achievable.
No Drugs Means No Problems, Right? Wrong.
To understand why the supposed war on drugs has been a series of one step forward two steps back, there are some key points everyone needs to understand. As you may know, the focus of the war on drugs has been to eradicate drugs and place the people trafficking and using them in jail. In theory, this makes perfect sense; erase the product to erase the problem.
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But as the basic economics of supply and demand reveals, if you reduce the supply of a product then you should also (ideally) reduce the demand for it. Of course, addiction has and probably will never be easy to reduce quickly, so the demand for drugs naturally remains high. But for the drug supplier to remain profitable despite dwindling supply, they raise the cost of drugs.
For anyone who has experienced drug addiction firsthand or otherwise, a person with an addiction will do (almost) anything to get their fix. This is precisely where society suffers the most damage: the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders.
The U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. This is largely due to harsh punishments and mandatory minimums not for people who are creating and supplying drugs, but for many individuals with drug addictions they think they have no control over. In short, many of these addicted individuals have serious health problems. (The negative effects of criminalizing drug use and addiction dismisses the fact that it’s a health problem, which is clearly explained below.)
Despite the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s budget of 30 billion dollars, their efficiency rate is less than 1 percent when it comes to stopping drugs coming into and already flowing within the country. Hearing this statistic is sobering, so is there a better system?
Effective Alternatives to the War on Drugs
Thankfully, there are better systems that some governments around the world have implemented and they’re working. Specifically, in Portugal and Switzerland.
Leading up to the early 2000s, Portugal was facing a drug crisis not unlike America still faces today. The crisis was spurred in the 1970s by the end of a dictatorship. On the surface, a country free from dictatorship was good news, though perhaps the change was too drastic and too fast. A newfound democracy and freedom quickly led to an experimental approach to politics, government, but also drug use.
After a couple of decades, criminalizing drug use and addiction continued to fail. It was not until 2001 that the Portuguese government made a huge move to decriminalize the possession and use of drugs – all drugs. It’s crazy to imagine, but the country has actually gotten better.
In the last 16 years, Portugal has climbed out of its drug crisis. More notably:[7,8]
- Drug use has declined among people most at risk of initiating drug use (15 to 24-year-olds)
- The percentage of people who use a drug and continue to do so has declined
- Drug-induced deaths have decreased greatly
- HIV infections have steadily declined among drug users who inject
Switzerland took a similar approach when it was facing a heroin epidemic in the 1980s. As the rate of street crime and HIV infections increased, the Swiss government opted for harm reduction. This entailed opening free heroin maintenance centres for addicts, which included:
- High quality but controlled use of heroin with clean needles
- Safe injection rooms, showers, and beds
- Medical supervision, social workers to help find housing and other life problems
Over time, Switzerland saw a steep decline in drug-related crime. In fact, 66 percent of people who used the heroin maintenance centres went on to find regular jobs because they no longer had to focus on financing their addiction. Today, 70 percent of heroin addicts in Switzerland still use the centres.[10,11]
While Portugal and Switzerland’s decisions to decriminalize drugs and use alternative methods, this isn’t to say it’s a perfect solution. However, it should be a beacon of hope for other governments. There’s arguably no perfect solution, but hopefully world leaders see the value in trying because it has worked.
The Risk of Not Regulating Drugs
A chemical called levamisole used to de-worm farm animals has been found in cocaine. This has led many drug users to be poisoned with terrifying side effects such as skin lesions, discoloration, and rotting skin. Some doctors said of levamisole that it leaves people “feeling they have HIV.”
Drug-induced deaths in the UK, where this tainted cocaine has been found, reached record highs last year. As mentioned earlier in the article, demand doesn’t simply go down. So, the more addicts seek out cocaine, the higher their risk is of using a batch containing levamisole.
Unfortunately, the biggest challenge that researchers face is people refusing to admit to drug use. Since many people can still function during and after using cocaine (unlike heroin), it’s not easy to link the severe side effects and infections this levamisole-tainted cocaine can cause.
According to lead researcher Dr Tjeerd can der Veer, “It is essential for patients to be honest with their health care providers, so they can deliver the right care.”
Yes, this may be an extreme case in another part of the world. But there’s absolutely no reason it could not happen wherever you live, which is why addressing drug use and addiction as a health problem is so important.
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