An Acceptable Drug Addict?

A recent article in the Economist caught my eye regarding drug legalization (“legalization” being the operative word) in Portugal. Having lived in San Francisco for a brief stint about two years ago I was privy firsthand to the “harm reduction” model. Essentially, instead of criminalizing drug use which can and has resulted in bloated prisons costing tax payers an arm and a leg, try and reduce the harm. Accept that addicts will be addicts, provide a way out of the addiction (counseling, treatment centers), but no force should be applied.

The counter-argument is if you accept drug use and in some cities provide safe places to use, the message you are sending to society, and most important to your younger populations, is this behavior while harmful is not illegal and should not be judged. This continues to be the powerful argument against widespread legalization, but the results of a country-wide harm reduction model in Portugal cannot be denied.

Possessing small amounts of marijuana, heroine, and cocaine (up to 10 days of personal use) is not a punishable crime in Portugal. The individual is still stopped, drugs are confiscated, but instead of being sent to prison the individual is sent to a drug board which judges the person accordingly and frequently either hands out community service hours or a small fine. Treatment options are heavily suggested and the country has seen a massive up-tick in the number of people seeking voluntary treatment since this new law has been put in place.

All of the statistics point to a Portugal that has not been inundated with addicts spilling into the streets, rampant crime, or a haven for narcotics activity. However we again return to the overall message that is being communicated.

We are seeing some big changes in drug laws in developing countries. Argentina and Mexico have legalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana and Europe and Canada are far ahead with regard to the harm reduction model. I am not sure this model is replicable everywhere, but the statistics do not lie. What say you?

7 Comments

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7 responses to “An Acceptable Drug Addict?

  1. OwloftheWolery

    I wonder when our politicians will be brave enough to consider decriminalising personal possession of drugs in England too.

    According to the BBC’s recent excellent Panorama programme, “Smugglers’ Tales” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00lz9g2), approximately 55 per cent of prisoners in England have a serious drug problem and over seven out of ten prisoners test positive for illegal drugs when admitted to prison – many for drug-related offences.

    With the overcrowding of prisons a growing problem in England, we need to start replacing hugely expensive and ineffective custodial sentences in drug-plagued prisons with other measures such as addiction treatment. Why not read more about what’s being done regarding the problem of overcrowding in prisons at (http://www.howardleague.org/overcrowding/).

  2. Lincoln Annas

    I have worked in the area of substance abuse prevention for middle and high school students and am an advocate of community justice programs and Drug Courts.

    To reduce drug use and create a healthier society we need to develop the capability and will to solve and rehabilitate those who deviate from life affirming choices and behavior. This needs to be done within the community rather choosing short-term solutions such as imprisonment.

    There is a hard core criminal element that should be imprisoned for the safety and health of the community. I suspect that the percentage of criminals that require prison is 5% and that as a society and community we need to treat the other 95% within the community. This is not “soft on crime” Those who break the law need to be held accountable for their acts. As a society we need to actively engage in the process of prevention, cure, redemption and healing. Otherwise criminal behavior becomes a cancer that eats at those committing criminal behavior and the communities which they violate with their behavior.

  3. Luca

    Not to be impertinent, but: what are you talking about? Which drugs are you considering in your post? The WHO has developed a lot of literature on the issue of psychoactive “substance” abuse (also the word “substance” being the operative word here). Anglosaxon scientists classified psychoactive substances using the “Drug Harm Index”, and as a matter of fact, alcool is the 5th more harmful substance, tobacco is the 9th. At the same time cannabis is 11th and extasis is 18th (please refer to this article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/6474053.stm#drugs ).
    Prohibitionism concerning “illicit” drugs is, first and foremost, a cultural problem which has to be understood under this perspective. How can we otherwise justify that worldwide alcohol abuse causes 1.8 million deaths (3.2% of total), it is estimated that tobacco causes about 8.8% of deaths (4.9 million) and we hardly mention the word prohibition for these substances, while all other illicit drugs together account globally, for 0.4% of deaths (0.2 million), and still we consider them as the biggest threat to public order in our countries?
    [statistics mentioned are drawn from http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/facts/en/%5D.

    • Thanks, Luca. Unfortunately with regards to drug reform rational arguments need not apply. What you state is absolutely true but we also have to consider numbers of users as well. It is clear alcohol and tobacco kill more people per year than the harder illegal drugs, but the number of people abusing these substances is gigantic compared to the numbers of users of say cocaine or marijuana. Also, hard to speculate on which is more harmful being that the number of users is quite small and we are talking about legal and illegal substances. Not a clear-cut argument.

      The larger argument here though is not which is more dangerous, because at this point tobacco and alcohol are here to stay. Rather, what is the message that is being transmitted to younger populations that widespread legalization will inevitably equate to widespread acceptance. From a moral cost/benefit perspective, does this make sense?

      • Luca

        Thanks p2p for your kind reply. I only partially agree with you, as the harm scale I indicated is not only linked with the total number of deaths in which abuse results worldwide, but on the actual dangerousness of the use of each drug. As a matter of fact, alcohol is way much more harmful than “light” drugs, still we perceive its use as “normal” because we maintain a “eurocentric” approach to the use (and abuse) of psychoactive substances. While alcohol has been part of our culture since the time of the ancient roman empire, other cultures have had their own drugs. Still, during colonisation, we criminalised the use of such drugs to affirm our right to prosecute peoples and populations at any moment, without real justifications.
        Let’s come to concrete terms: we are already transmitting a message to younger generations that the use of (some) of these substances is licit (and it is legal!): how can we convey a coherent message when our approach to psychoactive substances is not coherent in itself?

  4. p2p: I don’t think you have a moral argument at all. The harm done by criminalization, in my mind, far surpasses any harm done by the substances themselves. From a cost/benefit standpoint, the current drug war has lots of costs and no benefits. Medical treatment of addicts has costs, but definitely carries benefits.

    True addiction is a medical problem. Let’s treat it as such. For the rest of the users, I don’t really care as long as they don’t harm others. If they do, there are existing laws to take care of it.

    Getting high: alcohol, marijuana, coffee, nicotine, coca. All of this seems to be a universal characteristic of human beings. It’s existed in every known human culture, past or present. When you fight against human nature, you lose. Let’s help the people who get out of control and let the rest do what they please.

    • Hi Edward. I actually agree that criminalization can and has done more harm with respect to this topic. What I was attempting to bring up is the underlying notion of right and wrong. To me it is similar to teen pregnancy. There are a multitude of methods to prevent teen pregnancy with respect to actually aborting the baby. But every responsible parent communicates that getting pregnant as a teenager or even before you are married is irresponsible. That stigma is engrained in our society and thus we can actually see the difference between right and wrong.

      I am not so sure we as a society will be able to control that stigma if drugs (all drugs) are legalized. I am not saying more kids will become users but that stigma buying and using will no longer be a barrier. Again the question is not economically or reason based, but rather emotionally based. “Is this a society we should strive for?”

      By the way, checked out your site. I too lived in Boulder (did my undergrad) and now live in Chile. I suppose there is big demand down here for your products. Best of luck!!!

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