War on drugs due its own armistice day
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.
This quote from Albert Einstein speaks to the matter of how most countries have spent many decades attempting to address the matter of substance abuse. November 11 marked Armistice Day, commemorating the ending of the First World War. Perhaps this milestone offers the opportunity to end the “War on Drugs”.
That slogan may be part of the problem. The United States has championed this “war” over many decades. That leadership has not appreciated the lessons of Prohibition” when the US unsuccessfully attempted to ban the consumption of alcoholic beverages during the 1920s and 1930s. It was during that time that organised crime gained a substantial foothold in American society.
After decades of prosecuting the War on Drugs, America is experiencing an opioid crisis. During 2016, nearly 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, and in 2017, 47,000 died from opioid overdoses, alone. It is arguable that these are causalities of that “war”. Investigative reports in the media, such as by 60 Minutes, have exposed connections between large pharmaceutical companies and this epidemic.
I’m not aware of these tragic opioid circumstances being paralleled in Bermuda. However, given the influence of our large neighbour over our small community, we would do well to be proactive, as we remain a jurisdiction impacted by general substance abuse.
A direct outcome to the “war” is that today the US happens to have the highest per-capita incarceration rates in the world — a majority of those incarcerated being convicted of drug-related offences. Logic would suggest that, based on this statistic, America would have been on top of substance abuse. However, the reality of the opioid crisis points in the opposite direction. This provides a clear signal, calling for a change in approach.
While America has been leading this global “war”, other countries have been exploring alternate approaches to substance abuse. One such nation is Portugal, a country with which we have just celebrated a 170-year relationship.
Since 2001, Portugal has employed a unique and progressive approach to addressing substance abuse. The Portuguese Government for the past two decades has chosen “armistice” rather than “war” on this matter. It has opted for an approach that is grounded on public health tenets rather than a criminal justice paradigm that criminalised thousands. Portugal has gained the attention of other governments around the globe, since the Portuguese experiment has borne positive results.
In 2001, Portugal transformed its legal code to effectively decriminalise the use of all mind-altering substances. This has meant that for the past 18 years, while it remains illegal to sell cannabis, cocaine and heroin, for example, it is not illegal in Portugal to use those substances.
There have been measurable outcomes that are wins for Portuguese society:
• There has been a reduction of deaths related to substance use
• Other health measures have moved in a positive direction for abusers
• Levels of incarceration in prisons have fallen
• Those indicators assessing the levels/rates of use of these substances have unexpectedly declined
Portugal’s culture has been traditionally conservative. However, circumstances led the country to make a significant shift that has been supported by its various governments over the past two decades. Commentators have noted that the outcome has resulted in cultural shift so that those caught up in substances are no longer demonised and are consequently supported in addressing their challenges. Therefore, those affected are much more willing to seek assistance.
Bermuda may consider taking the opportunity of leveraging our relationship with Portugal to explore the possibilities of its tried and tested alternative approach.
Of course, the Portuguese experiment is not perfect; we could choose the best aspects from that experience. Let’s get beyond the “war” and choose an “armistice” for the sake of upcoming generations.
• Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda
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