What happens when we think of drug addiction as a public health issue rather than a crime?
While touring Vancouver, Mayor Robertson and I biked through a funky neighborhood called Gastown, known for drug use. He pointed out a giant photo piece by local artist Stan Douglas of what became known as the Gastown Riot, when police rounded up drug users in 1971. It’s like a scene from a movie, with all the period detail.
Times change. Mayor Robertson has again, controversially, opened up fix rooms in this neighborhood, where drug users can obtain their product and safely consume. These rooms are proven to eliminate many of the health risks of taking heroin.
People there have access to clean needles and inject the stuff properly. Those who overdose get help immediately (though no one has actually OD’d in one of these places). Vancouver saw a 35% reduction in overdose deaths in the vicinity of its safe-injection facilities in the two years after they opened compared with the two years before.
Police in Vancouver were initially dubious, but officers now escort addicts to the facilities. Crime in the area dropped as well. Other places are going even further.
Portugal: Legalize It
Fifteen years ago, Portugal undertook a great experiment. They decriminalized the use of all drugs and unveiled a major public health campaign to address addiction. The intention was to treat drug addiction as a medical challenge rather than a crime.
Now, the results are in, and it’s clear which approach was more successful. The United States’ War On Drugs failed spectacularly, with almost as many Americans dying last year of overdoses—around 64,000—as were killed in the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined.
The Portuguese Health Ministry estimates that only about 25,000 Portuguese use heroin now, down from 100,000 when the policy began. The number of Portuguese dying from overdoses plunged more than 85%. Recent numbers show there were only 30 drug overdose deaths among Portuguese adults since the initiative was implemented. Granted this is a smaller country—only 10 million people—but still, that’s 1/50th of the U.S. overdose rate.
If the U.S. could achieve Portugal’s lower death rate from drugs, we would save one life every ten minutes. We would save almost as many lives as are now lost to guns and car accidents combined.
Author Misha Glenny points out more social and economic benefits of this policy:
“In 2016 Colorado accrued in taxation from marijuana about $140m on sales of almost $1billion. That is more than twice the amount from alcohol sales and part of that money is hypothecated for the education and health systems.
Has civilisation collapsed in Colorado? No, it hasn’t, because they’re smoking as much dope as they were before. It’s just thats it’s no longer organised crime who are getting the benefit, it’s the state.”