It’s time to end America’s longest war

It’s clear that drugs are winning the war on drugs, so what’s next?

Since the war on drugs truly began escalating in the 1970s, it has destroyed countless lives. From Nixon to Reagan and beyond, the American government has tried to solve the issue of drug abuse by force, imprisoning million of addicts without a second thought. But surprise, surprise, addiction didn’t go away. The pervasive idea of “just say no” made addiction into a character flaw rather than what it actually is, an illness.

Clearly, the hardline policies on addiction haven’t worked. 1 in every 5 inmates are locked up due to nonviolent drug offenses, and the opioid epidemic is devastating communities everywhere, causing overdose deaths to sharply increase in the last decade. I’d say, in this case, the score is Drugs-1, America-0. So since drugs and addiction aren’t going away anytime soon, what can we do to be kinder and assist the countless people struggling with the disease of addiction? The answer is decriminalization.

In 2000 Portugal was devastated by heroin addiction; their own war on drugs was still ongoing, but it was clear that they were losing, so the government took a radical step forward, decriminalizing all drug use and possession. The results are undeniable; according to the European drug report in 2015, Portugal’s drug-induced death rate is 5 times lower than the rest of the EU and one-fiftieth of Americas. Along with this, the rate of HIV infection has dropped from 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million since decriminalization was initially enacted.  Instead of being locked up for using, when addicts are found, they are instead sent to a local clinic with doctors, lawyers, and social workers, where they are taught about available treatment and medical services.

Unlike America, where hospitals can choose to report overdose patients to the police, and addicts suffer in silence, unable to seek help from family and friends due to fear of judgment. In Portugal, addicts can easily get medical, social, and psychological help to help guide them through the struggle of getting clean.

While the case for decriminalization is rock solid, it will be incredibly difficult to actually enact, given Americans’ deeply ingrained drug war mindset and the negative perception of victims of addiction it has created. I mean, if we can’t even legalize marijuana nationally, decriminalization seems like a pipe dream… or is it? As you may know, Oregon recently passed a bill decriminalizing personal possession of all drugs. The bill had overwhelming support from Oregon voters, and while Oregon is a far more liberal state than most, there is a chance we could see more states hop on the bandwagon, similar to what happened with marijuana legalization.

While national decriminalization is the longest of long shots, changes to state and local policy is a real possibility. And even without that, preventing abuse and helping addicts starts with empathy, plain and simple. By understanding addiction as an illness and addicts as patients who need support and treatment more than anything, you can help stop the war on drugs from claiming another life.