We've come a long way from the days when skull drills and leeches were used as “remedies” for drug addiction.
Norway is the latest to take a different approach when dealing with drug offenders; the country's courts ruled to sentence convicted drug users to rehab, rather than sending them to prison -- effective immediately nation-wide.
After successful trials in Oslo and Bergen, the narkotikaprogram (narcotics program) will give drug users the choice to avoid prison by signing up for treatment. Each offender that choses the rehab program will be assigned a team of education and health experts, and the court will decide the conditions that would come with the program -- if these conditions are not met, it could result in a prison sentence.
Justice Minister Anders Andundsen said:
“The goal is that more addicts will rid themselves of their drug dependency and fewer will return to crime, but if the terms of the programme are violated, the convicts must serve an ordinary prison term.”
The move has unsurprisingly garnered opposition, with right-wing pundits arguing that drug use should remain a criminal offense (it still is), and the left saying that the law still fails to protect vulnerable addicts. Nevertheless it's both morally and logically the correct thing to do.
Norway has one of the highest proportions of overdose-caused deaths in the European Union, something legislators are hoping the policy will help change.
Similar decriminalization measures in other countries -- in the Netherlands, Colombia and Spain -- seem to have achieved the desired effect. Ever since Portugal adopted a bold policy of full decriminalization for all personal possession of drugs in 2001, rates of drug use have fallen drastically across the country.
Drug-induced deaths plummeted shortly after decriminalization 15 years ago, and have remained low, according to Transform, a think tank. New cases of HIV infection among drug users also fell dramatically.
We have come to realize that punitive policies prevent people from seeking help, most of the time adding fuel to the fire. The fact that we still demonize drug users as criminals shows that we have a lot of work to do, but real change is slowly happening.
Scientific research has proven time and again how drugs affect the brain, and with it, an individual’s ability to reason clearly. The official drug abuse site for the National Institute for Health explains that:
“Addiction changes the brain in fundamental ways, disturbing a person's normal hierarchy of needs and desires and substituting new priorities connected with procuring and using the drug.
The resulting compulsive behaviours that override the ability to control impulses despite the consequences are similar to hallmarks of other mental illnesses.”
Drug addiction is also particularly prevalent among those with pre-existing psychological disorders. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that patients with mental illnesses are responsible for the consumption of 38% of alcohol, 40% of cigarettes, and 44% of cocaine.
Meanwhile, Advances in Psychiatric Treatment determined that close to half of all drug users have experienced depression at some point in their life -- a condition hard enough to recover from when you’re sober.
Medical professionals therefore understand that substances alter neural networks -- and in the case of relapse, many believe individuals are at the mercy of biology despite their desire to change. A 2013 study found that the brains of former addicts were still wired for addiction in the same way as those of current users, even after years of abstinence.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said at the 2011 World Drug Report launch that “drug-dependent people should not be treated with discrimination; they should be treated by medical experts and counselors. Drug addiction is a disease, not a crime.”
The following year, Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy called drug addiction “not a moral failing on the part of the individual, but a chronic disease of the brain that can be treated,” adding that incarceration avoids the root of the problem because it punishes rather than treats.
While no one is arguing that those who commit drug-related crimes should be left off the hook, it stands to reason that drug addicts should also be helped. We can punish the crime, but stopping at that isn't the solution.