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From getting tough on crime to reducing harm, there’s more than one way to tackle substance abuse

While Singapore is quick to hand out the death penalty for trafficking, Portugal has legalized drug use.

Teenagers and adults are both prone to substance abuse. According to Gateway Foundation, in the US today, “there are more than 7 million people suffering from an illicit drug disorder, and one in four death results from illicit drug use.” A study of Canadian students from grade 7 to 12 in the province of Ontario showed that 17% of students, in grade 7-12, have used non-prescribed painkillers like codeine, Percocet, Percodan, Demerol or Tylenol #3.

Substance abuse is a worldwide issue that blights modern societies. According The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODAC), “In 2015 about a quarter of a billion people used drugs. Of these, around 29.5 million people – or 0.6 per cent of the global adult population – were engaged in problematic use and suffered from drug use disorders, including dependence.”

There are a variety of approaches to substance abuse worldwide. Some countries try to prevent substance abuse by imposing strict laws. Singapore for instance, has the strictest laws in the world. If a person is in possession of 15 grams of cannabis or 3 grams of cocaine, they are presumed to be trafficking. Being caught with 500 grams of cannabis or 30 grams of cocaine can result in the death penalty. The strict drug policy has worked well. According to Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, Singapore’s Ambassador to the U.S., Singapore only has 30 opiates abusers per 100,000 people–far below the 600 per 100,000 in the U.S. Although not all Singaporeans take joy in the death penalty, they “understand the need for it and strongly support it,” Mirpuri writes.

However, other countries take an opposite approach, instead moving towards harm-reduction and decriminalization. Portugal for example, decriminalized all drug use and possession for personal use in 2001. Portugal in the 1990s, was in throes of a national crisis, “averaging 360 drug overdose deaths a year in a country of 10 million.” The Portugal government decided to take measures to treat illicit drug use as a health problem. Rather than being arrested, those caught with a personal supply might be given a warning, a small fine or provide support services that were available to them. This policy treats drug users as patients rather than criminals. After the government implemented the drug policy, a statistical report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Drug Addiction, shows that drug overdose deaths in Portugal are now the “second-lowest in the European Union.”

On notable symbol of a harm reduction approach in Canada is Insite–a Vancouver-based, “supervised drug consumption site.” The site provides safety for drug users and connects them with care and recovery. Similar safe drug consumption sites have been approved by Health Canada in major cities across the country. In 2017, Healh Canada approved a supervised drug injection site in Victoria since it “has the third highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the province.”

Politicians and health care workers such as the NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, Toronto’s medical officer of health, and the public health director of Montreal, have expressed their desire “to remove criminal penalties for the personal possession of illegal narcotics like cocaine and heroin” in order to raise the awareness to the public and “seek treatment for an addiction.” However, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the health minister have stated that “the Liberal government will not consider decriminalizing drugs,” except cannabis. The government cannot “ensure quality control of drugs,” and Health Canada says they are “not looking to decriminalize or legalize all illegal drugs,” but they will take other action to treat drugs “as a public health issue.”

While many countries, including Canada are continuing the war on drugs to send a clear message that discourages drug use, calls continue to stop treating drug users as criminals, and “start treating them like people who need to be supported.”

Image: Pixabay

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