As early as 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in the United States. Over just twenty years, the number of federal prisoners imprisoned for non-violent drug offense had skyrocketed from 50,000 to over 400,000.
US crackdown on drugs has been fierce, imprisoning citizens who have even less than a gram of an illegal substance [Drug Policy]. The war on drugs, overall, has increased the number of prisoners and has done nothing to stop the actual use of illegal drugs, in fact 64,000 died of drug overdose in just 2016.
That brings us to the question: should illegal drugs be considered a matter of public health – a new approach, or criminal justice – the current policy?
A public health approach would mean that instead of going to prison for using illegal drugs, people would be directed towards rehabilitation centers instead. A criminal justice approach keeps the current policy and punishes those addicted to drugs by giving them jail time.
The case for the illegal use of drugs being a matter of public health is strong, with many people looking towards Portugal as a successful model of the public health system working. The number of Portuguese on heroin has decreased fourfold, 25,000, down from the 100,000 before the public health policy was instituted.
In addition, the number of Portuguese dying from overdoses decreased by 85% – about one fiftieth of the United States’ number for overdose deaths. Also, according to the New York Times, Portugal also brings the argument that it’s actually cheaper to treat people than to jail them, comparing the numbers between itself: $10 per citizen and to the US: $10,000 per household.
On the other hand, an interesting argument arises from the side of criminal justice that says a public health approach increases illegal drug abuse. As an example, Switzerland, which has implemented a public health approach, restricted heroin use to a park. However, this turned into a tourist attraction filled with 20,000 people at times and eventually had to be closed.
Furthermore, according to the Center on Addiction, in places such as Italy, where some small possession offenses are excused, has one of the highest heroin addiction rates in Europe. And, places like The Netherlands that have “coffee shops” where customers could choose flavors of marijuana you find adolescent use triple in consequence.
As a solution is hard to come by, there are many more arguments for each side to be explored. But ultimately, because of the failed “war on drugs” in the US, it can be agreed on that something must be changed, whether it be stronger laws for criminal justice or new ones advocating for public health.
Paul Kang, Grade 9
La Canada High School