The Failed War On Drugs & A New Approach

We might be on the edge of a new era of drug laws, according to recent reports. An international commission has publicly denounced the war on drugs and is calling for reform.

What Are the Global Commission’s Recommendations?

The Global Commission on Drug Policy is made up of 19 former world leaders, including former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former U.S. Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker. The Commission released their report this week, and it immediately caused a stir. The Commission states that, “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world”. (1)

Why Did the War on Drugs Fail?

Even after the U.S. issued the war on drugs decades ago and other countries have dedicated years to criminalizing drug possession, the rates of drug abuse have continued to climb. Rather than people heeding the drug laws, drug cultivators, manufacturers, traders, and dealers have found creative ways to hide their drug business from authorities, using highly sophisticated drug rings and blatant gang activity.

Now, the commission is encouraging governments to “break the taboo on discussion of all drug policy options, including alternatives to drug prohibition,” according to former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria. (1) They are also promoting “experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens,” adding: “This recommendation applies especially to cannabis, but we also encourage other experiments in decriminalization and legal regulation.” (2)

What is the Impact of Drug Legalization?

All this may sound a bit chaotic and experimental, and people may be worried about what effect this would have on our world. Some countries already have decriminalization practices in place, and for other countries, it could take years for anything to come of these recommendations.

Legalizing certain drugs would have a bigger impact on some countries than others. However, the Commission’s report concludes that decriminalization initiatives do not result in significant increases in drug use.

How Would Drugs Be Legalized?

For those countries moving toward legalizing drugs, the first step would be to decriminalize drug possession for people who use drugs but do not harm others. Not all drugs would become legal at once, and the Commission encourages countries to first consider legalizing marijuana before other drugs. A critical practice that countries will need to put into place is offering more treatment options for nonviolent cases, rather than jail time. This would free up the criminal justice system to focus on drug traffickers and violent organized crime. In addition, more time and energy can then go toward prevention programs and to address the harmful consequences of drug use.

Funding Treatment vs Cost of Incarceration

A battle is going on in our country about the best way to manage the never-ending drug problem. On the one side we have those that want stiffer punishments and more law enforcement dedicated to stopping drug criminals. On the other side, there are those that see treatment as the way to stop the cycle of drug abuse and prison time.

Is Treatment Beneficial for Criminal Offenders?

Providing better treatment for drug offenders is beneficial for many reasons. It saves money in the long run because it is much less expensive to treat an individual and teach them to be self-sustaining than it is to keep putting them in prison. There are many people in the prison system that have substance abuse problems, and if we have the ability to help them stay out of prison, we should do it.

What Are the Main Challenges to Increasing Funding for Treatment?

Those pushing for more funding for treatment are facing an uphill battle. First of all, it is hard to convince people to allocate funds for treatment when it means taking some away from law enforcement. Even if it will save millions of dollars in the end, making that transition is going to be difficult initially. Secondly, there is very little evaluation in place for drug treatment programs. If we are going to spend money on treatment rather than prison time, we need to know that these drug addicts are going to get real help, be part of an effective program, and have the best chance at succeeding. In order to do this, a complete overhaul of the evaluation process might be necessary, so that funds can be allocated toward facilities and types of programs that really work.

Even if our country sets up a great system for treating drug criminals instead of sending them to prison, we will still have to face the fact that some offenders aren’t ready to get clean, and they won’t put in the effort to do so. There are some drug addicts that would rather stay in prison than go through treatment. We need to have programs put in place for these individuals so that they are not going through the motions of treatment just to turn right back to drugs at first opportunity.

Treatment vs Incarceration: Which is Better?

Some individual states are making the decision for themselves about how to handle the treatment vs. prison controversy. California has cut most of its funding for treatment, while New York has allocated $50 million toward treatment. Many people are hoping that the new deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Tom McLellan, will bring about better treatment opportunities. McLellan, a treatment expert, believes in expanding treatment, to some extent, which gives hope to many that want to put an end to the cycle of drug addicts going to prison.

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Portugal’s Drug Reform Success

When it comes to the war on drugs, the United States has faltered in recent years, so much so that drug czar Gil Kerlikowske has renounced our old term “War on Drugs” and is trying a more integrated approach. Portugal has also tried a new tactic in dealing with drug addiction. Their approach is one that was both bold and difficult, but one that seemed to have paid off. Other countries have taken note of Portugal’s success, including the United States. Gil Kerlikowske has met with Portuguese officials to talk about their drug reform strategies.

What Does Portugal’s Drug Reform Law Entail?

Ten years ago, Portugal had a severe drug problem. 100,000 people, or about 1% of the population, were addicted to drugs. Portugal found itself in the never-ending cycle of arresting drug criminals, prosecuting them, and then, after their sentence was complete, finding them back on the streets again. It’s one of the main problems countries face when trying to end drug addiction and the crimes that are so often associated with it.

In 2000, Portugal passed a law that decriminalized the use of all illegal drugs. Drugs are still illegal in Portugal, but instead of throwing someone in possession of drugs to jail, it sends them to treatment or counseling. Portugal wrote it into law that anyone caught with illegal drugs will go directly to a “Dissuasion Committee” for counseling and further treatment if necessary.

It’s not a new concept, but it is one that is difficult to carry out. How does a government take the first step and say that citizens aren’t going to get in trouble if they are caught with illegal drugs? Fears in Portugal were that everyone would go out and try drugs, and that the country would become full of addicts who were getting away with their drug abuse. But that hasn’t happened. In the last 10 years, Portugal has seen drug-related court cases drop 66%, the number of drug abusers has remained the same, and the number of people receiving treatment rose 20%. Most importantly, some of the country’s worst neighborhoods, once plagued with drug addicts and crime, have become safe.

Who Opposes Drug Legalization Laws?

Some argue that policies like these are too soft on drug addicts, and without pressure and the threat of jail some people will never change. And in fact, countries that become lax when it comes to carrying out the law often see an increase in drug users. But countries like Portugal have seen success because they follow through with the treatment part of the plan. It works because they have changed the drug problem from a law enforcement issue to a public health issue which can be more openly managed.

Throwing a drug addict in jail does little good. We can expect 48% of drug-using criminals to get caught using drugs again. However, if we can get these people the help they need to live a life without drugs, we can change their lives for good.