Fighting a Lost War

Criminalising drug addicts is expensive, unecessary and counter-productive. But there is a smarter, more humane way.    

By Francois Badenhorst


PHOTO: Drew Stephens



We have lost the war on drugs.
Calm down, just breathe. It is OK. It has been lost for a long time. In fact, it was never a contest.

A drug free society is a cute ideal. But it is not realistic – in fact, it has never existed. Drug use is as old as human civilization itself. It could possibly even predate human civilization: Scientific estimates go up to 7,000 years ago.

It seems even sillier then, this idea that drug use can be eliminated by harshness and force. Take America, for example. The United States spends $40 billion a year fighting its “war on drugs”. And for what? The drug trade is still booming, prisons are brim full, and the Mexican drug cartels still make a killing (literally and figuratively).

When formulating drug laws we should consider one fundamental reality: Drugs and drug users exist. Always have, always will. So, what now?

One thing is certain: The criminalisation, arrest and marginalisation of addicts is not the answer.

Rather, drugs should be decriminalised and harm reduction should be practised. This may sound like a pipe dream, but there has been a country that has quietly practiced this for over a decade with great success.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized – which means that it is now a civil and not a judicial concern – the possession, purchase and use of all drugs. A person caught carrying, for example, 25 grams of cannabis or a gram of cocaine – defined as a quantity sufficient to last no more than ten days – is guilty of an administrative violation removed from the criminal realm.

Now, I can already hear the cat calls and howls of derision. It is understandable. It is a lot to take in. But according to every definable metric,the policy of Portugal has been a success. Stunningly, a Portuguese government report released on the 10 year anniversary of the policy in 2011 showed that the number of drug users had been halved.

Another notable statistic from the South African perspective is the strong decline in HIV/AIDS. Pre 2001, Portugal had one of the highest HIV/ AIDS rates in Europe. Needle sharing and reckless sexual practices among addicts were heavy contributors to the problem. Portugal tackled the problem in the cleverest way possible: “The just say NO to dirty needles” program.

Under the program, an addict can walk into a pharmacy and swap a used syringe. In return, the user receives “a kit containing a syringe and a needle, a sterilised towel, a condom and a leaflet entreating the addict to give up drugs.”

Many would decry this as enabling but the results are there. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction reported a 17% decline in AIDS rates among addicts. The numbers are impossible to deny.

A drug policy’s biggest concern should be to help the user. Instead of a draconian prison sentence, a Portuguese addict faces a committee. First, a social worker speaks to the person, followed by a psychologist and a lawyer. All three of these people emphasise the harm of drugs. More importantly, all three are in the position to offer their help and advice to the drug user.

Doesn’t this sound more humane and all together more modern? Instead of driving drug users into a nightmarish underworld of flop houses and dirty needles, they are spoken to and treated humanely. As Dr Joao Goulão – one of the masterminds behind the law in Portugal – says: “Drug users aren’t criminals, they’re sick.”

And cost is not an argument. The high road costs money, building a great society costs money. If the United Kingdom could establish the National Health Service – a truly great public institution – directly after the awful toll of World War 2, then we can have no justification. Cost is not an argument. It is an excuse.

A sensible drug policy creates avenues of escape for addicts. By confronting addicts, by asking them if they want help, Portugal gives users a chance to escape from the destruction that drugs causes. Drug use is a problem that can only be lessened by pragmatism and tapping into our uniquely human capabilities of reason and empathy.

The logic of the current drug policy can be undone with one question: What good has the criminalisation and arrest of addicts brought us? Other than full prisons and pushing addicts away from people that are qualified to help them, the answer is clear: Nothing.

 So the choice
meandering along with a system that does not work. Or one like Portugal’s: A progressive, compassionate, and properly conceived system that has statistically verified results. Is it really a choice?








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