Monday, December 27, 2010

Enlightened drug policy saves money, lives, communities

The humble poppy is such a pretty flower, yet it’s the source of so many
addictive substances society must contend with, hopefully in more enlightened ways
than we have been doing for decades.
(Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain)
Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé
Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz
1885, Gera, Germany

For years, authorities from many disciplines, from health care to law enforcement, have argued that the current policy of treating drug addicts as criminals is not only wrong-headed but far too expensive, and certainly dangerous. Now Portugal has joined the growing number of countries to prove that providing medical treatment to drug addicts instead of locking them up does pay off.

Of course, there are still critics of reform who argue that drug addicts must be punished and treatment is expensive. They’re correct about the latter, but I contend that the facts make the former point moot. Drug addicts suffer physically and emotionally throughout their lives, even after they become sober. In fact, staying on an even keel is, for them, a lifelong struggle, marked by ups and downs.

What’s more, the economic arguments are actually balanced on both sides when comparing the ongoing cost of throwing drug users into prison versus sending them to treatment. But the nay-sayers fail to consider the long-term economic benefit when they deny the need for enlightened change. Considering only the cost of law enforcement and incarceration misses the point, as that’s only one part of the equation, both economic and social.

Wherever a high percentage of the population spends time in prison, the overall community ends up being victimized. Security becomes a vital and expensive item in community and personal budgets. That extra charge is written into the cost of everything, both goods and services, sold in the neighborhood. That’s why in the U.S., for instance, prices for basic commodities are higher in inner-city stores, at least in those places where there are any grocery, department, or discount stores left.

Sending people to prison for possessing and using hard drugs merely turns them into hard-core criminals, bringing down not only their lives but that of their families and their communities. On the other hand, providing medical and social support to addicts has a beneficial effect not only on their future, but that of their loved ones and the entire community.

The greatest positive argument comes from the social improvements, which affect all of us. Turning people from prison to medical treatment has a positive effect on the community at large, as has been shown in Lisbon. In the past decade, formerly depressed drug-infested neighborhoods have become lively communities where families thrive. The few addicts left are treated humanely, and the government has a standing offer to help them overcome their dependency on hard drugs.

In the long run, any government would benefit both economically and socially by implementing the following policies:

  • Treat drug addiction as a public health issue by offering treatment to anyone willing to take advantage of it.
  • Arrest drug addicts only when they commit a crime involving more than simply using a dangerous drug.
  • Provide educational, job training, and employment opportunities to recovering drug addicts.
  • Provide counseling and support to families affected by drug addiction.
  • Direct funds currently used to enforce a failing drug policy toward community improvement projects.

Communities around the country that are doing this kind of thing are reaping the benefits of this open-minded policy. The time is long past due for both state and federal authorities to try the same thing, for the benefit of all.

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