As a Christian, I believe that grace is the most powerful transforming force in the world. It is not by violence that we are redeemed but through a gift.
Our failure to understand this truth is part of why the United States has the highest overdose rate in the world.
I dive into the many different causes of our current overdose epidemic in Addiction Nation. They range from criminally deceitful pharmaceutical companies, economic inequality, lack of access to evidence-based treatments, and the disintegration of social and cultural connection.
But, the focus on punishment — the ongoing “War on Drugs” and feeding the system of mass incarceration in the United States — is not only an ineffective waste of money; it actively contributes to the destruction that drugs can cause.
For those struggling with self-harming behavior in the present, increasing punishment in the future doesn’t normally help make positive changes in their behavior. Punitive criminal punishment without comprehensive support for recovery makes the situation worse.
Addictions can be harmful in and of themselves, but a whole lot more pain and suffering come from how we treat people struggling with addiction.
A lot worse.
A study of more than 1,300 injecting drug users in Baltimore from 1988 to 2000 examined this problem. Researchers examined demographic factors, drug use patterns, and even whether the person sought drug treatment. The authors write, “Of great interest is that only a history of incarceration differentiated persons who successfully stopped using drugs from those who continued to use injection drugs over a 12-year period.”
This bears repeating. The only factor that distinguished those who successfully stopped using drugs from those who continued to use was this: Those who stopped had not gone to prison.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Portugal, in 2001, became the first and only country in the world that has gone to the extreme of decriminalizing all drugs for personal use. Drugs aren’t legal, but if someone is caught with a small amount, there are only civil fines to be paid. Money that had been used for incarceration and the criminal justice system has been reallocated to outreach and treatment programs.
Critics across the world warned that a huge spike in both usage and overdoses would soon follow. But in 2017, Portugal had one of the lowest drug overdose rates in the European Union, at 6 per million inhabitants compared to 21.3 per million for the European Union at large.
When I first saw these numbers, I was intrigued, because I had just read that our overdose rate in the United States was 21.7 — close to the European Union as a whole but still nothing close to what Portugal had achieved. When I went back to check the numbers again, I noticed my mistake.
In the United States, we count drug overdoses per 100,000, not per million. The comparable numbers are 6 per million in Portugal, 21.3 per million for the European Union, and 217 per million in the United States.
This is not to say that decriminalization is a panacea.
The architect of the change in policy, Dr. João Goulão, is concerned that some might take the wrong lessons from what has happened in Portugal.
“It’s very difficult to identify a causal link between decriminalization by itself and the positive tendencies we’ve seen,” Goulão said. “It’s a total package. The biggest effect has been to allow the stigma of drug addiction to fall, to let people speak clearly and to pursue professional help without fear.”
The key is not decriminalization per se but holding a place for hope for anyone wrestling with addiction. Over half of all resources dedicated to drug policy in Portugal go toward “demand reduction,” which is treatment, not incarceration.
Yes. The government of Portugal spends more resources on creating second chances and space for grace than it does incarceration and punishment. And it is working. Not just a little bit— but dramatically better than the U.S. system.
Portugal is a unique country with a particular history. We will need to figure out our own ways of applying these principles that work within our country. But it shows clearly that harsh criminal penalties are part of the problem, not the answer.
Grossly disproportionate impacts of our counter-productive drug policies has plagued communities of color and immigrants for generations. Now the opioid crisis has ripped through many white communities, and there is an opportunity to recruit more allies in the fight for criminal justice reform.
We need treatment and support, not incarceration, to be our front line in addressing drugs and addiction.