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America’s Drug Epidemic: Could Amnesty Be the Answer?

Nearly three times as many Americans per year are dying from overdoses on painkillers and prescription drugs today than in 2001. Over the 14-year time period, heroin-related deaths have increased fivefold. But the American drug problem doesn’t stop at overdoses; drug users also transmit diseases. In 2010, eight percent of new HIV diagnoses in the US came from injection drug users. Moreover, the cost of drugs is not only physical but also financial; the US spends $193 billion on drug abuse a year, including $61 billion tied up in drug-related crimes. Given the severity of the US situation, it’s time to implement a more evidence-based solution to the nation’s drug problem by providing treatment to drug addicts, rather than imposing punitive measures.

Ever since the ramping up of the War on Drugs three decades ago, the United States has significantly stiffened its drug laws and penalties. The implementation of federal mandatory minimum sentences — laws that punish criminals with a minimum number of years in prison — has resulted in drug users enduring unreasonably long prison sentences. For example, mandatory minimums send first-time offenders caught with five grams of crack cocaine to jail for at least five years without parole. Once found guilty of a drug crime, it is incredibly difficult for individuals to find work, and many ex-convicts resort back to drugs out of desperation. High unemployment among felons also means that many of them can’t afford treatment, with a quarter of people surveyed reporting that they decided not to pursue medical help because of the costs. This causes around 77 percent of drug offenders to be rearrested within five years of being released from prison. In total, as of 2012, one in five prisoners in the US were being held for drug-related offenses. Quite clearly, sending drug criminals to jail is not a very effective deterrent at all. The Obama Administration, it seems, is beginning to acknowledge this, with the recent announcement of early releases for about 6,000 inmates held on drug charges. Still, thousands upon thousands remain jailed, with overly lengthy prison terms lying ahead of them.

So how should the US go about helping its drug-addicted citizens break free of their dependencies? One place the US can look to for ideas is Portugal. At the turn of the millennium, the Iberian nation was riddled with some of the worst heroin and drug-related AIDS problems in Europe. In 2001, the Portuguese took the radical step of decriminalizing all recreational drug use, meaning that possession of drugs (except for amounts exceeding a ten day supply) could no longer be considered an offense punishable by prison time, despite being illegal. The new method of reprimand for Portuguese drug users was much more forgiving than that which is employed by countries like the United States. If a person is caught with illegal substances in Portugal, the police confiscate the drugs, and the offender meets with a three-person commission to determine any potential further punishment. This commission – which consists of one lawyer, one psychiatrist, and one social worker – can choose to issue a fine to the offender, prevent him from visiting places where he may be able to obtain drugs, or levy other sanctions. The committees tend to favor offering addicts rehab and/or community service in lieu of other penalties. Unlike the United States’ system, Portugal’s incentivizes drug users to accept treatment for their addictions over fines and other punishments; it is geared towards treating drug abusers rather than shunning them.

When first implemented, the Portuguese approach to drug law drew plenty of critics. But nearly fifteen years later, the data makes it hard to argue against. From 1999 to 2003, the number of overdose deaths in Portugal fell by almost 60 percent. Today, Portugal boasts the second-lowest overdose rate in the European Union: three deaths per million people. Thanks in large part to the country’s wide-ranging needle exchange program, HIV diagnoses among drug users dropped by 70 percent from 2000 to 2008. The share of prisoners charged with drug-related offenses dropped significantly as well, from 44 percent in 1999 to 21 percent in 2012, and the majority of those still in prison were sentenced before the laws changed. This, in turn, has helped decrease the overall number of inmates in Portuguese jails, easing concerns of overcrowding.

By and large, Portugal’s innovative approach to drug control has been a resounding success. But whether a similar strategy would achieve comparable results if utilized in the United States – and whether such a system could logistically be implemented at all – remains another question altogether. However, small-scale US experiments with more forgiving drug policies — like the Portuguese model — have suggested that leniency may be the best course of action. In Massachusetts, the city of Gloucester’s recent changes to its drug laws have provided hard evidence that a more forgiving approach to substance abuse can be effective in this country. This past summer, the Gloucester police department enacted an amnesty-based option for local drug addicts, becoming the first city in the nation to do so. The new program was laid out on the police department’s Facebook page in May, shortly before being put in place. “Any addict who walks into the police station with the remainder of their drug equipment (needles, etc) or drugs and asks for help will NOT be charged. Instead we will walk them through the system toward detox and recovery… on the spot,” the post stated. While this is not exactly the same process used in Portugal, the main result of sending addicts to rehab rather than jail is comparable, as are the motivations behind its creation. “Addiction itself is not a crime; it’s a disease,” Gloucester police chief Leonard Campanello told The Atlantic. “There’s an expectation that… the police department is there to treat (drug addiction) as a crime. And when we start seeing lives lost because of it… we have to start looking at it differently.”

Although it’s still too early in the program’s life to tell for certain, the data thus far indicates that the Gloucester model has been and will continue to be just as successful as that of Portugal. In the first two weeks after the plan’s commencement at the start of June, seventeen individuals sought help through the police department. By mid-August, that number leapt to 109. Heroin overdoses have been cut in half. Other cities are starting to recognize the accomplishments of the Gloucester policy, and a handful, including Scarborough, Maine and Dixon, Illinois, are developing similar systems of their own.

Although it appears evident that the treatment-first approach works on this side of the Atlantic too, it’s still a long way away from becoming the national standard. One of the biggest questions surrounding an adoption of drug amnesty in the US comes from determining which level of government should decide the system. A federal law would be the most fast-acting resolution, but it’s difficult to imagine any Congress, let alone this one, passing such a radical bill at this time. Not to mention that a federal law wouldn’t be equally effective across states; the drug cultures of California, West Virginia, and Rhode Island are not identical and demand unique approaches. Thus far, towns have determined their local strategies, with police forces given the autonomy to make the switch if they so desire. But statewide or at least county-wide rulings are necessary in order to save lives as quickly as possible.

Potential implementation of a new drug treatment procedure faces further obstacles beyond legal changes. There would likely need to be an increase in the number of rehabilitation facilities and trained workers to accommodate all those seeking treatment. Questions about the costs of such programs would be raised, although it is foreseeable that any new expenses could be countered by the $8.2 billion that would be saved from no longer needing to prosecute and jail minor drug offenders. Switching to the Portuguese system would cut out a huge portion of this cost, freeing up budget space for funding the policy change. Gloucester Chief Campanello revealed that the added costs of his plan thus far have been under $5,000, all of which has been drawn from drug seizure funds, meaning such a strategy could eventually save money.

But even if there is a financial benefit to installing an amnesty-based drug program throughout the United States, its importance pales in comparison to that of the human impact such a system would likely have. Drug addiction is a disease, and it’s time the country started treating it as such. The cases of Portugal and Gloucester have demonstrated that many lives can be saved under a system that forgives and aids drug abusers rather than letting them rot in prison for years. The US government needs to serve all of its citizens, not just its sober ones, and shifting the focus of its drug policies would be a vital step in the right direction.

Photo: Dimitris Kalogeropoylos

About the Author

Michael O'Neill '19 is a Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.