What the United States Can Learn from Drug Policies around the World
It has been forty-six years since President Richard Nixon famously declared the war on drugs in 1971, but the attempt to control the illegal drug market through law enforcement and policies has been seen as a widespread failure. Today, drugs are purer and cheaper than they ever have been, and United States jails are being flooded with drug addicts.
It is clear that a shift towards a more liberal drug policy could be a better solution to drug trafficking and abuse, and several countries across the world are already laying the groundwork. The United States should be closely following the successes and failures of these nations, since they might hold the answers to the questions it is currently trying to solve.
Portugal has arguably taken some of the most progressive measures by decriminalizing drugs. Rather than going to jail for buying, selling, or using drugs, individuals in Portugal often receive smaller criminal fines or treatment options.
The main goals of this policy are to view drug addiction as the disease that it is and to promote treatment instead of sending addicts to jail. Portugal’s progressive drug laws have been widely seen as a success, as the amount of drug users, HIV infections, and drug-related deaths have declined, while the number of addicts seeking drug rehab options has been on the rise.
Switzerland is often credited with one of the most innovative drug policies in the world due to its focus on prevention and harm reduction. The country’s preventive approach has helped a startling 70 percent of opiate or cocaine users receive treatment. The country also provides heroin safe rooms where clean needles are provided to help addicts safely inject. Safe injection sites have cut the number of drug injectors who contract HIV or die from overdose in half. Countries such as Canada and Germany have already followed suit by adding similar safe injection sites as well, and the United States has just started implementing safe injection kits for heroin in Las Vegas.
The United States needs to be wary of the mistakes the United Kingdom recently made regarding its own drug policies. In 2016 Parliament passed the Psychoactive Substances Act. The act makes it an offense to produce, traffic, supply, and possess a psychoactive substance, which the bill calls “a substance that produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state.”
The terms of the bill are so broad that flowers, perfume, and air fresheners could fall under this definition of psychoactive substances. If any new drug policy bills are introduced in the United States, it will be important to use the right verbiage.
Sweden has long taken a zero-tolerance approach in its drug policies. In Sweden, the use or possession of drugs is illegal and even minor offenders face up to six-month prison sentences. While Sweden’s overall number of drug abusers is lower, the country still has the second highest death rate among all western European nations. Their regressive approach to drug policy has failed to address harm reduction, which has left an alarmingly high number of drug abusers in Sweden with hepatitis C. The more time has passed, the more obvious it has become that Sweden’s approach is not working as it had hoped. Instead, the country’s drug usage can be credited to social, cultural, and economic factors, and the number of overall drug abusers has actually risen.
It is unrealistic for the United States to immediately legalize all drugs, yet it is clear that a more lenient drug policy could be more successful in helping addicts and controlling drugs. Several European countries have already done the groundwork to show what works (and what doesn’t). The key to winning the war on drugs lies within the prevention and treatment of the disease, rather than punishment.
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