From the testimony of Barry McCaffrey, a Clinton-era Drug Czar, one would think that the Netherlands is ground zero for the war on drug addiction on the planet. The official’s scathing 1998 review of his visit to the country was riddled with condescension and fear-mongering of a terrifying and gruesome situation across the ocean. The response to this testimony, though, was immediate: Dutch and Dutch Americans came down on McCaffrey, confronting him online and through letters about his string of extremely untrue stories about a desperate situation that simply didn’t exist, and portrayed their country in an undeserved negative light.
Spreading misinformation has continued through today. Just two years ago, Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed to have heard from law enforcement agencies in areas where marijuana was legal that there had been increased violence, as well as increased instances of theft. None of these claims have been substantiated, but it is worth noting that there have been increased instances of people coming from outside of states where marijuana is legal, stealing large amounts of legal marijuana, and taking it out of state. Despite the bouts of misinformation from sources that should be reliable, there are pockets of the United States that are willing and able to treat people living with addiction by operating on a platform of facts and compassion. Because of rampant misinformation, though, the United States has fallen behind our peers in drug treatment. Other countries have tried a variety of different options, with most of them starting by classifying drug offenders as patients, and treating them, instead of jailing them. The world, for once, isn’t trying to catch up to the United States. They’re trying to catch up to Portugal.
Portugal: The Price of Freedom
In 1974, Portugal overthrew their last dictator, and with the help of a democratically-elected president, slowly began to catch up to the rest of the world. The authoritarian leadership had effectively cut the little country off from advances in research and legislation surrounding drugs, something that would cost Portugal later. As the country opened and began to absorb the modern world, heroin, smuggled in from India and Pakistan, washed up on the shores of Portugal, creating a visible problem in Lisbon in the 1990s.
The Portuguese government, terrified of what was happening, made a bold, sweeping move to save as many as possible: instead of following in the footsteps of their neighbors, and of other world leaders in the war on addiction, they decriminalized all drugs. With decriminalization came the re-classification of drug offenders as patients, and patients need treatment. Once this treatment of people living with addiction was normalized, the number of overdose deaths plummeted, as did crime associated with the drug epidemic. Because of this proactive and history-making legislation, other countries were able to see that drug reform was possible through healing, instead of incarceration. Now, Portugal sports mobile clinics that carefully measure and distribute methadone, as well as safe injection sites for people using intravenous drugs.
Marijuana was decriminalized in Switzerland in 2012, with users serving no jail time, but a fine. Certain amounts of marijuana are illegal, as well as plants of certain strength. This, though, is still significant, as marijuana is still mostly-banned in most countries on Earth. Switzerland has also invested in safe injection sites, which dramatically reduce the number of overdoses and overdose deaths. Safe injection sites are one of the most-often used means of providing people living with addiction a place to use in peace and safety. In the last decade, clinics dedicated to harm reduction have popped up across the countries leading the world in drug reform. These are places where people can find clean paraphernalia and the watchful eye of medical staff, which protects them from overdosing.
Mexico and Uruguay
News of the dangerous drug cartels based out of Mexico has haunted the United States for decades, and the situation has not improved. The United States, of course, wasn’t the first victim of the Mexican drug cartels: Mexican people were. As the world began slowly realizing that jail time was not the way to handle the problem of drug addiction, and as cartels began to gain more and more power, Mexico took Portugal’s route in the war on addiction, and decriminalized most drugs. Marijuana remains in a state of legal limbo, but use heroin, LSD, and cocaine are punishable by a small fine. Rehab in Mexico can be terrible, and completely ineffective, but where drugs have been decriminalized, the next logical step is passing laws that enforce standards for treatment for people living with addiction.
Uruguay is an interesting case. Frightened by the hold of the cartels in many countries in South America, the federal government legalized the cultivation and sale of marijuana. It is taxed, of course, but the extra income will help the tiny country as it continues to try to provide for its citizens.
The United States
There is still a long way to go in this war, but the United States boasts excellent rehabilitation facilities for those who are fortunate enough to be able to find them, and to have insurance that the clinic accepts. The system is imperfect: ideally, everyone would receive the quality care that they need, but rehab clinics are putting forth effort to continue to help as many people living with addiction as possible. Their strongest ally is the local police, who have a variety of new tools and techniques to assist with the current drug crisis in the United States.
More police officers are carry life-saving Narcan, which can reverse the effects of an overdose for a few minutes between each dose, buying valuable time for emergency medical crews to arrive and save the day. This medicine has rescued hundreds of people across the country, and the number of saved lives keeps going up. One police department is even allowing people living with addiction to turn themselves in for treatment without being charged with a crime. While the sustainability of the project has been questioned, the police department has said that the response has been good. We all hope this means that this is a real solution to the problem of this war that has gotten substantially worse as time has worn on.
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