According to this theory, when addicts aren't nervous about where they'll get their next fix, consumption goes down (as do overdoses). When demand on the streets goes down, so does the price. This brings down street violence...and is bad news for a pusher's bottom line. With clean needles and a source providing reliable purity, potency, and quantity, maintaining the addiction becomes less dangerous. With these provisions, you still have an addict — but you remove crime, violence, money, and disease from the equation, so you can treat it as what it is: a health problem for mixed-up people who are screwing up their lives and need help. As Swiss addicts are safely dosed to maintenance levels, they begin to reclaim their lives, get jobs, pay taxes, and — in many cases — kick their habit altogether. Switzerland's heroin maintenance centers (now also in Germany and the Netherlands) succeed in reducing the harm caused by drug abuse.
While heroin-maintenance programs seem to be relatively successful, Europeans have tried and failed with other programs. For instance, experimental "needle parks" (places where the hard drug-taking community could gather), which ended up attracting junkies and creating a public nuisance, were abandoned for the more low-key maintenance centers. But at least Europeans are dealing with the challenge openly, creatively, and compassionately.
In contrast, some observers suggest that the US's more punitive policies towards addicts cause "junkification": they marginalize the addict and drive them to dangerous, predatory behaviors — from simple stealing, to mugging, to prostitution, to selling drugs to others. In other words, if you treat heroin addicts like they're dangerous junkies...that's exactly what they'll become.
The casual American observer who sees more junkies on the streets of Europe than in the USA may conclude they have a bigger drug problem because of their more lenient drug policies. In fact, according to the 2007 UN World Drug Report, the percentage of Europeans who use illicit drugs is about half that of Americans. The difference is that theirs are out and about while working with these centers and trying to get their lives back on track. Ours are more often either dead or in jail. Through its busy maintenance centers, Switzerland has provided literally millions of heroin fixes, and they've not had a single overdose death. Overall the USA loses roughly 18,000 people a year to hard drug overdoses, and Europe (with a much larger population) loses about 8,000.
Like my European friends, I believe we can adopt a pragmatic policy toward both marijuana and hard drugs, with a focus on harm reduction and public health, rather than tough-talking but counterproductive criminalization. The time has come to have an honest discussion about our drug laws and their effectiveness. When it comes to drug policy, you can be soft, hard...or smart.
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You are reading "Junkification No More", an entry posted on 15 February 2010 by Rick Steves.