|"Drug addiction is the compulsive use of a substance, despite its negative or dangerous effects." -
A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.
Our prisons are full of people suffering from the disease of addiction. An illness that if left untreated will likely kill them. Approximately 80% of crime in New Zealand occurs under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Yet, it is still very difficult to persuade courts to mandate offenders into rehabilitation programs and even harder for those in prison to access treatment for their addictions. Over 50% of those released from prison are back inside within five years and for those under the age of 20, more than 70% go back.
New Zealand has the second highest rate of imprisonment in the Western world. We spend obscene amounts of money on prisons, with very little success in turning our captives' lives around. Maybe we just like the idea of locking people up. Our blind support for the "War on Drugs" is not only expenisve and stupid, but it can only lead us to where the USA finds itself today: the world's highest levels of both drug abuse and prison incarceration in the world.
However all is not lost, Portugal is here to save the day. For years the Portugese have astounded the world by creating irresistable seafood dishes and professional footballers faster than John Key can invent excuses for child poverty. Now they can add another accomplishment to their résumé; how to reduce drug abuse.
On July 21st, 2001, Portugal decriminalised all drugs, from cannabis, to cocaine, to heroin. Over a decade has passed since the Portugese authorities decided that drug users are in fact not criminals. The government now offers treatment with no threat of legal punishment. The results are staggering. Portugese drug policy is undeniable proof that treating people with empathy and respect is better than stigmatising and locking them up.
In a little over ten years, the number of people suffering from drug addiction has been cut in half. Portugal's drug usage rates are now amoung the lowest in the EU and as a result, drug related diseases including STDs and overdoses have been reduced even more than usage rates.
Our government and justice system continue to stick their heads in the sand like some sort of puritanical ostrich with shares in the private prison industry. It is up to our communities and local healthcare providers to protest against a system that perpetuates both addiction and the criminal activity necessary to fund it.
- Shane M.