In many countries, drug addiction carries with it a negative stigma.
Some drugs, such as marijuana, have recently been garnering national attention with discussions surrounding their use and possible benefits, but other drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, are rarely ever given a positive spin. These illicit substances tend to be at the top of the list when discussing negative stigmas associated with addiction. While some may not frown upon marijuana abuse, use of drugs like heroin and cocaine tend to be universally viewed more harshly and with greater criticism. People addicted to these drugs tend to be subjected to more dramatically negative portrayals and the majority tends to look down upon them with an unwavering opinion. While this stigma may seem to be a deterrent to experimentation in the first place, it is not enough to stop the growing problem with abuse of these substances. In fact, the negative connotations that accompany these forms of drug abuse may actually deter some from seeking help or treatment at all due to overwhelming shame, guilt, or fear of how they may be perceived.
While the United States is currently seeing a shift in the legality of recreational marijuana in several states, other countries are focusing on more dangerous drugs that carry much more severe consequences. In the near future, Ireland will be moving to decriminalize possession of marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. In addition, medically-supervised injection rooms will be available to drug users in order to combat stigmas associated with use. Naturally, Ireland’s new approach to drug possession is polarizing, but their actions follow the lead of several other countries who have decided to take a new approach to the war on drugs driven by the United States. The Minister of Drugs, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, announced plans to open injection centers in Dublin next year, and this is the first major step in moving toward decriminalization across the board.
Ireland’s Approach to Drug Addiction
Ireland’s radical shift in drug policy is linked to several concerns surrounding public health, expenses, and the overall stigma surrounding drug abuse. In a speech at the London School of Economics, Ríordáin discussed how the stigma surrounding drug abuse can affect a user’s willingness to seek help, and how criminal charges associated with drug possession can further compound the negative views many hold. By decriminalizing possession, drug users are far less likely to end up behind bars and are more likely to receive treatment. The overall idea is that decriminalization will reduce drug use and drug-related crime, and will further protect the general public.
Ríordáin further established the benefits of supervised injection centers by emphasizing how casual drug use currently impacts the country. Many casual drug users are at risk of overdose and contracting blood-borne diseases. For the public, drug paraphernalia, syringes, and needles in public spaces can expose them to dangerous pathogens and substances. With the introduction of supervised injection centers, users can go to a facility staffed with medical professionals that can provide a safer, more controlled environment. Ríordáin was quick to add that these establishments are not a “free-for-all” for drug users, rather, they seek to engage populations that are harder to reach. For example, homeless drug users who would otherwise take drugs out in the open, exposing themselves to the public, can visit clinically-controlled environments that protect them as well as those who would have otherwise been around them.
Ríordáin further explained that the goal in this radical shift regarding drug policy is to change the way we view and treat addiction as a society. The change seeks to remove stigma and shame associated with use and reduce the role played the criminal justice system in the lives of people who suffer from addiction. This approach is designed to treat addiction as a medical condition rather than a criminal act, which will benefit those who are in desperate need of treatment. Furthermore, the change in policy only decriminalizes using or being addicted to drugs. It is still a crime to sell, distribute, and profit from illicit drugs.
Other Methods of Viewing and Addressing Drug Possession
For many, the concern regarding decriminalization surrounds the belief that it may open the door for more potential drug users to be born through this policy. If it is no longer a crime to be a drug user, then perhaps more people will be open to experimenting with illicit substances. Some may argue that without criminal consequences for drug use, there is no way to legally deter someone from developing an addiction in the first place. In reality, decriminalization appears to produce the opposite effect. For example, in 2001, Portugal took drastic action by decriminalizing all drug use. Rather than putting drug users behind bars, Portugal implemented fines and community service as a way to reprimand users. In turn, drug abuse among adults and adolescents dropped significantly, with rates of abuse lower than any time before the law went into effect. HIV is far less prevalent among drug users and the overdose rate has dropped significantly. Portugal now claims the lowest rate of every country in the European Union besides Romania.
In recent years, other countries have taken similar to change the way in which we view drug addiction. In 2009, Mexico decriminalized possession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, LSD, and methamphetamine. In Columbia and Peru, it is legal to cultivate and possess cocaine. Both Switzerland and Germany have decriminalized cocaine as well. These countries, along with the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and Singapore have permitted cocaine for medical use. Similarly, heroin is permitted for medical use in Canada, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands. Other countries are moving to decriminalize drug possession in the near future.
The United States does provide drug users with alternatives to jail time in some instances through the use of alternative sentencing programs. For some first time offenders, judges may allow individuals to enter into alternative sentencing programs in order to avoid developing a criminal record or facing jail time. Rather than spending time behind bars, alternative sentencing places drug users in treatment facilities and requires them to perform community service.This form of punishment is progressive in that it allows drug users to receive treatment for their addiction and provides them with a second chance at sobriety and a normal life. Without a criminal record looming over their head, users have the ability to overcome addiction without carrying a stigma as well.
Decriminalization’s Impact on Drug Addiction
While many express concerns about the potential for increased acceptance of drug use and a possible growing number of addicts, Ireland’s approach to drug addiction is one of the most progressive drug laws in the world. There is a distinct difference between legalization and decriminalization, and Ireland’s new policy seeks to focus on rehabilitation and treatment, rather than criminalizing addiction. Regardless of the drug used, a person who struggles with addiction needs treatment. The new drug policy in Ireland has shifted the perception of drug addiction by changing the conversation to focus on the illegality of the drug, not the illegality of the user.
Comparatively, in 2013, the United States arrested 1.5 million people for nonviolent drug charges. Evidence shows that mass incarceration has actually led to the development of more crime than it has prevented. President Barack Obama has been calling for a massive overhaul in the way the nation sentences. He recently expressed the sentiment that incarcerating large numbers of nonviolent drug offenders was neither fair nor effective in addressing the larger issue of drug addiction. He went on to grant clemency to 46 nonviolent drug offenders this past summer.
While this approach to drug addiction may be controversial, it aims to change the way we view addiction. Addiction is classified as a disease that requires treatment to overcome. It is a compulsive behavior in which people seek and use illicit substances despite the harmful consequences associated with use. It physically changes the way the brain is structured and the way it works. In some cases, these changes can be permanent. For those in desperate need of help, the stigmas associated with drug addiction can make it difficult to seek treatment and even harder to exist in a world that largely frowns upon addicts. By changing drug policies, countries like Ireland are actively working to change society’s perception of drug addiction and to protect those who struggle with it as well as the communities in which they reside.