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America’s war on drugs has reached a tipping point. Fifty-one percent of all federal prisoners between 2011 and 2013 were serving time for drug related offenses. The “war” has officially been raging since the ’70s when President Nixon declared drugs public enemy number one. However, strict Puritanical policies regarding illicit substances began in the early 1900s. Addicts have been falling through the societal cracks ever since.
A national poll conducted in April 2014 by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of U.S. citizens are ready for a change. The survey reported that 67 percent of Americans believe the government should focus on providing treatment for those who use illegal drugs, like cocaine and heroin.
The movement towards decriminalization is already gaining momentum with states like Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and Washington legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. Seattle is leading the charge towards a more compassionate approach to enforcement of harder drugs by introducing a program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). Offenders in the city are assigned a case manager that helps provide them with treatment, counseling, mental health services and even housing, instead of sentencing them to jail.
Critics of federal drug policy believe the U.S. is behind the cultural and scientific times as it relates to drug addiction.
10 countries have successfully changed their drug laws and approach to enforcement and addiction
1. Portugal: The first country in the European Union to decriminalize all drugs has seen a decline not only in arrests, but in illicit drug use overall. While there are still small fines for selling drugs, the country’s focus is on rehabilitation, harm reduction and treating addiction as a disease.
2. Ecuador: In the ’80s and ’90s, this country could do little to stop America’s war on drugs from wreaking havoc in their nation. Recently, though, Ecuador has moved to decriminalize drugs in an effort to combat cartel activity. The sale of drugs remains illegal, but Ecuadorians are allowed to possess small amounts of both “soft drugs” like pot and “hard drugs” like heroin. There is current legislation to put into place a system for treatment and rehabilitation for addicts.
3. Uruguay: This nation has done something truly incredible. It formally legalized marijuana. The government sells a gram of cannabis for $1, which has snatched the carpet out from under the black market dealers of pot. While harder drugs are not illegal to use, it is not legal to sell cocaine or heroin. One of Uruguay’s reasons for decriminalizing pot was to free resources up to deal with major drug trafficking.
4. Czech Republic: Czech citizens face a small fine for possession of any drugs for personal consumption. In fact, legally, they’re allowed to have up to five marijuana plants and small amounts of cocaine. The government still prosecutes major drug trafficking and distribution, while offering harm reduction programs, like needle exchange programs, along with counseling and infectious disease tests. These policies have seen a reduction in the amount of drug use and overdoses in the country.
5. Switzerland: The Swiss government has had harm reduction programs in place since the 1980s because of the spread of HIV/AIDS due to needle sharing. Along with needle exchanges, the government provides counseling, housing and even supervised “injection rooms” for addicts.
6. Croatia: This tiny country decriminalized marijuana in 2012 and has liberal policies regarding harder drugs. Croatians don’t get an entirely free ride, though. If they’re caught in possession of drugs, they may face fines, rehab, community service or a combination of all three. There is, however, no jail time.
7. Argentina: In 2009, the Argentinean Supreme Court unanimously ruled that punishment for the personal consumption of drugs should be considered unconstitutional. While this country is still experiencing cartel activity, it is moving more toward addiction as a public health issue and not criminal activity.
8. The Netherlands: Most people are familiar with Amsterdam as being a pot-smoking tourist destination. It’s legal in this country to possess up to 5 grams of marijuana. There are laws in place prohibiting the sale of pot to “coffee shops” that sell to tourists. However, they’re not enforced. Cities in the Netherlands can also ban tourists from buying and smoking pot if they so choose.
9. Australia: Technically, drugs are still illegal down under. In 2001, though, the government opened “supervised injection sites” where addicts could safely use drugs. There is medical help on staff if needed, as well as long-term help if asked for. Decriminalization has not yet entirely become law as of yet.
10. Mexico: Our neighbors to the south have certainly gotten the brunt of drug smuggling activity and violence from both cartels and the American led war on drugs. In 2009, the government decriminalized drugs, including LSD, cocaine and heroin. Policymakers hope that legalization will dampen the thriving black market that exists in the country.
No country in the world is immune to drug misuse and addiction, but prosecution has been going on long enough to realize it hasn’t helped reduce abuse or addiction. In fact, not only has the sale and trafficking of illegal substances increased, but the prison population for drugs has escalated.
When ten very different countries around the world have decriminalized drugs and found declines in usage, overdoses, and arrests, it’s a surefire signal that other countries should, at the very least, look at the alternatives to the war on drugs and treat it as a public health issue instead of a moral dilemma. Maybe then, we will find help for those that need it most.