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Compassion not Criminalization—Effectively Addressing Addictions

By: Carol Morriscey

After decades of opposing policies for addiction and drug use have been in place, it has become clear that compassion, not criminalization, is the best approach The “War on Drugs” first began as a promising solution to the immense problems with drug use and addiction experienced in North America. This hard-on-crime approach sought to punish not only traffickers and drug dealers, but also those plagued with addiction. Simultaneously, Portugal was facing a drug crisis of their own. However, instead of imposing stricter sentences and penalties, Portugal pardoned users through decriminalization and the implementation of public health initiatives addressing addictions.

Now we see the dramatic contrast in results from drastically different approaches to drug use, drug abuse, and drug addiction. While America’s rates of drug use continuously climb, much strain is put on the public systems. Jails are crowded with individuals charged with drug-related offences, emergency departments are flooded with overdose patients, paramedics deliver lifesaving treatment to drug users on a daily basis, all while rates of drug use continue to rise.

In stark contrast, rates of drug use in Portugal have plummeted, falling from being the home of one of the highest rates of drug use in Western Europe to one of the lowest. The rates of drug-induced deaths in Portugal is less than 2% of that in America. Psychologists and other outreach workers work hand-in-hand with people struggling with addiction, delicately promoting abstinence, while providing harm reduction resources such as clean needles and methadone treatment.

The fundamental principle underlying these juxtaposing policies, is the view of addiction either as a disease or a crime. The principle underlying Portugal’s approach is the former, while in America it is the latter. As the disease model of addiction has become more readily accepted in mainstream society, policies regarding drug use have lagged behind. The legalization of recreational marijuana in Canada this coming July is an interesting approach, matching neither the disease model, which would promote decriminalization and robust public health promotion and education, nor the criminal model which would promote more stringent regulation and stricter penalties. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s call for decriminalisation of personal possession of all drugs is much more closely aligned with Portugal’s approach.

Drug addiction is a disease, not a crime. In order to effectively address the issues our society is currently facing we must have the correct principles underlying all future policy decisions surrounding drug use and addiction. Searidge Foundation takes a compassionate and personal approach to each and every one of our patients, and we hope that the government will follow suit.

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National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers International Security for Traumatic Stress Studies The Canadian Positive Psychology Association The Association for Addiction Professionals