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  • Writer's pictureMartin Polanco

Does the War on Drugs Promote Drug Use?

Originally posted November 8, 2016

If the war on drugs has proved one thing…it’s that it has failed. The “all-out offensive” set in motion by Richard Nixon 35 years ago has cost trillions of dollars and put countless people behind bars. With a strong focus on the criminalization of drug users, our courts and prisons are full of convicted users. And, the reality is there are more people addicted to drugs now than ever before.

The war on drugs has failed, because it refuses to understand addiction. It instead punishes those who’ve fallen victim to addiction, shunning them from society and labeling them as criminals. What the war on drugs doesn’t look at is the way addiction works in the brain, it simply condemns those that become addicted.

Criminalizing those that use drugs subconsciously makes addicts feel more of the feelings that led them to addiction in the first place. Pain, shame, isolation, and regret are all felt by those condemned for using drugs. Relapse rates fall somewhere between 50-80 percent. And the regret, shame, and isolation of being labeled a drug addict can be a huge factor into causing relapse.

What hope do we have when our country has only latched onto one ideology when it comes to drug abuse and treatment? Perhaps it’s time to look outside our own borders and into other countries who are actually making progress in the war on drugs addiction. It’s the countries that have stopped criminalizing drug use and looked to treatment and education to get results.

Other Countries Making More Progress

Take countries like the Netherlands and Portugal who have decriminalized drug use. Rather than send drug abusers to jail, these countries have set up treatment centers instead where they legally administer the very drugs people are addicted to. Rather than treat the citizens of their country who have fallen victim to addiction like criminals, they are treated like people in a completely humane and “non-criminal” manner.

These are the countries that are doing their best to look at new ways to wage the war on drugs that is clearly failing. They are the ones who are giving addicts a chance at life, not taking it away from them. They offer treatment plans that become a way to monitor drug use and help an individual eventually evolve into a drug-free individual. They don’t condemn, they support–and this support is something addicts desperately need to succeed.

Isolation Doesn’t Solve Problems, It Causes Them

An all but forgotten experiment performed on lab rats in 1978 exemplifies the need for social support in addiction perfectly. The study aimed to show how someone’s life, surroundings, and environmental conditions impact drug addiction. In the experiment rats in cramped metal cages forced to consume morphine for 57 days straight were brought to a place called “Rat Park.” Here they had 200 times more room than the cages they were kept in and an abundance of food, toys, and other rats to hang out with. They were given the choice of either regular water or morphine-laced water when they arrived at Rat Park. Most of them chose regular water.

Offering a social environment, rather than isolating these subjects, showed it’s not necessarily the drugs that create addiction, but the social environment in which an addict finds themselves in. With the war on drugs continuing to criminalize addicts for being addicted, it’s simply just offering more reason to stay addicted. Isolating addicts in jails and denying them of a healthy living environment by keeping them tied to a system that condemns them for their choices only keeps them trapped in the cycle of isolation and addictive behavior.

If animals such as those involved in experiments such as those in Rat Park can refrain from seeking out drugs and drug relapse when offered a nurturing social environment, just imagine what the same type of environment could do for humans. Research has also shown that when people have access to health care and information about drug abuse, drugs suddenly become much less of a problem. Rather than focus on complete eradication and an “all-out offensive” on drug use, perhaps it’s time to bring the focus to the problem of addiction itself and different ways it can be addressed.

It’s become clear that it’s not a war that we need, but more understanding. Rather than fight against those who have fallen victim to addiction, we need to educate them and offer them viable ways to step into a world of sobriety. Keeping someone down is only going to keep them down. Decriminalizing drug use however, removes the criminal penalties and stigma attached with drug abuse.

If the war on drugs could finally end, we could begin to see a new world of understanding begin to emerge. Rather than penalize, we could educate. Rather than isolate addicts from the rest of society, we could immerse them in socially stable environments that support their problem rather than criticize it. Change is necessary and understanding of addiction is crucial. We don’t need a war. What we need is peace and a deeper consideration for those that have fallen victim to an ideology that is obviously failing.

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