Lessons From Abroad: How the Solve the Opioid Crisis

A clock is ticking on the wall. The second hand flicks anxiously from mark to mark around the circle. The minute hand spins, tracing an arc around and around and around. On the 16th rotation, when the hand of the clock glides across the 12 o’clock marker, a man in Falmouth, Kentucky, dies.

The hand continues around the clock, unrelenting in its pace. Another 16 minutes later, a mother of two in Manchester, New Hampshire, passes away. Sixteen more minutes, a 19-year-old in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Sixteen more minutes, a man who just became a father outside Santa Barbara, California. Sixteen more minutes, another. Sixteen more minutes, another. Sixteen more minutes, another.

According to the National Institute of Health, about 90 Americans die from an opioid overdose every day. In 2016, more Americans died from drug overdoses than were killed in the whole Vietnam War. This crisis is claiming more lives than the AIDS crisis at its peak. This year, opioid deaths surpassed those caused by breast cancer.

Without a doubt, this is a crisis, decimating American families and tearing communities apart. There is hope, though. This is not by any means a crisis without a solution. In fact, there is a solution we can draw from another country that stared down a similar calamity.

In the late 1990s, Portugal was faced with a massive heroin crisis. Almost a whole percent of the population was addicted to heroin; the equivalent in the United States would be more than 3 million Americans addicted to heroin. The crisis was destroying families, leaving bodies in the streets of a European capital and was a blight on Portuguese society.

The Portuguese government decided in 2000 to change its approach, decriminalizing all drug use. This approach didn’t make all drugs legal, per se, but instead of being sent to jail for what was considered a personal supply of drugs, a person was fined. By doing so, Portugal made the best decision about how to treat addicts: as patients needing treatment, not as criminals to be thrown in prison.

This fundamental shift in the way the government and society views those who are addicted to drugs was key in humanizing the country’s drug policy — and it’s something we should aim to do here in the United States.

In Portugal, critics of the policy argued lowering the penalties for drug use would simply result in a rampant increase in abuse. If there’s no penalty for doing drugs, then more people will do drugs, the argument goes. This is the kind of retrograde thinking one might expect from our attorney general, Jeff Sessions, a man who clings to the failed abstinence-based policies of D.A.R.E. and the like.

The problem with the argument is that it hasn’t been borne out in the real world. In Portugal, before decriminalization, drug use was among the highest in Europe, but since the change in the law, it has fallen below European averages.

A similar situation existed in Zurich, Switzerland, in the 1990s, when nearly 10 percent of the city was using heroin. The Swiss allowed prescriptions of methadone to addicts and made drug laws less punitive. Now, drug use is low, and Zurich is a famously pristine city.

These are policies we could easily adopt here in America. We shouldn’t treat addicts as criminals; we should treat them as human beings. Locking people up has been a failed policy since the ’90s, and it’s time we shifted to a more humane policy that focuses on drug use as a health problem, not a crime.

First posted as an opinion column in the Greenfield Daily Reporter. The original post can be found here

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