Let's go Dutch: Unlike ours, their approach to drugs actually works
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THE WAR ON DRUGS is a disaster. Just read the daily headlines: arrests and record drug seizures every week; worldwide violence related to drug cartels and gangs; new (and deadlier) drugs targeted to kids. The very fact that our government believes we need drug testing in schools is a tacit admission that the current strategy isn't working.
So what do we do about it?
The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem. That's something Great Britain recently did. Two months ago, the United Kingdom Drugs Policy Commission issued a brutally honest report that concluded Britain's own War on Drugs was "a total failure." The panel included a diverse group of experts, ranging from health professionals to law enforcement officials.
Their frank assessment found that decades of Brit-style "Just Say No" campaigns had little impact on deterring drug use. The report stated: "Whether we like it or not, drugs are and will remain a fact of life. On that basis, the aim of the law should be to reduce the amounts of harm caused to individuals, their friends and families, their children and their communities."
The commission criticized the government for wasting huge amounts of money on "futile efforts to stop supply," and suggested that jail sentences should be given only for the most serious drug-related crimes.
THEY RECOMMENDED a shift from the current "criminal justice bias" to recognizing addiction as a health and social problem. The report also advocated "supervised drug consumption rooms" as a means of preventing overdoses, and getting addicts into treatment.
It's not as if these are radical new ideas. Other European countries have already implemented sensible policies, and the Brits themselves have some experience in this area. From the 1920s to the 1960s, heroin was routinely prescribed to U.K. addicts. The population of junkies remained stable at around 2,000 during that period. When the laws were changed in 1971, the black market for heroin exploded. The United Kingdom now has 300,000 addicts.
That distressing tidbit comes from a U.S. News & World Report article (March 26 issue) about things we can learn from other countries. Thomas K. Grose writes that in the Netherlands, they have adopted a "pragmatic approach" that is paying dividends for both taxpayers and addicts.
Grose says it's a popular misconception that Holland has a permissive attitude toward drugs. Officials there still aggressively prosecute large-scale drug trafficking, and jail addicts who commit crimes. But they don't arrest users merely for possession.
Because the Dutch view addiction as a brain disease that requires treatment instead of incarceration, about 70 percent of their addicts get help. By contrast, only 10 to 15 percent of addicts in the United States receive treatment. In Hawaii, fewer than 20 percent of prisoners with drug problems get treatment.
DOES THE DUTCH way work? Thirty years ago, there were about 30,000 heroin addicts in the Netherlands. Today, the number of junkies is the same, even though the population has grown by 6 percent. That means fewer new users are becoming addicted.
By treating junkies with prescription heroin, they also found that addicts commit fewer crimes to support their habits -- which translates to less government spending, as well. Numerous studies show it's much cheaper to treat drug users than imprison them. For every dollar spent on treatment, taxpayers save more than $7 in prison costs, according to one analysis.
But I know what you're probably wondering: What about the infamous Amsterdam coffee shops that sell marijuana? Dutch kids must be getting stoned all the time, right?
ALTERNATIVES TO FIGHTING A LOSING WAR
Drug abuse affects us all, directly or indirectly. To learn more about alternatives to the current War on Drugs strategy, here are a few organizations that have Web sites you can visit:
» Drug Policy Alliance: www.drugpolicy.org Their bipartisan direct mail piece includes quotes from Walter Cronkite, conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Jr., and Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman.
» Drug Policy Forum: www.dpfhi.org A Hawaii-based nonprofit group that provides information and acts as a resource for the local media on drug-related issues.
» Law Enforcement Against Prohibition: www.leap.cc LEAP is comprised of veteran cops and detectives who have been part of the War on Drugs, and now say it's time for a change in strategy.
-- Rich Figel
Wrong, bong-breath. Pot smoking among teens under 18 actually dropped from 11 to 9 percent between 1996 and 2003. And the evidence suggests they are less likely to try harder drugs, since pot is available. In Holland at least, the "gateway drug" theory doesn't seem to hold water.
WE ARE A nation in denial. Instead of taking responsibility for being the world's largest consumer of illegal substances, we blame other countries for supplying them. Parents would rather point fingers at schools or the media, when the truth is many kids are using "legal" drugs they can find in their own parents' medicine cabinets.
As a recovering addict, I've seen the damage done by alcohol and drugs. Some people (like me) cannot handle the stuff, and shouldn't touch it. Abstinence for all, however, isn't realistic or necessary. That's why I believe the best we can do is to lessen demand and reduce harm. If you have ideas or suggestions, please send them to the Star-Bulletin at email@example.com or directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rich Figel is a screenwriter who lives in Kailua. He has been clean and sober for 18 years. His column appears periodically in the Insight section. Contact him via email at: email@example.com