War on Drugs–Busted, Part II

Watch for my new book, Fallout, coming out June 1!!!

In my last post, I recommended travel book writer Rick Steves’ new book called, Travel as a Political Act.  Among other great insights that he’s learned from his travels throughout Europe, he has a chapter on a common problem for both the U.S. and Europe: drugs.  http://travelstore.ricksteves.com/catalog/index.cfm?fuseaction=product&theParentId=163&id=385

He separates the problem into “soft” drugs (alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco) and “hard” drugs (heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine).  Last post, I wrote about the soft drugs; this time, I’ll look at hard drugs.

One of the biggest differences Rick Steves  found between the U.S. and Europe is their government’s approach to the problem.  The U.S. has criminalized all possession/sale of drugs while some of the European countries have decriminalized possession and treat it as a public health problem that needs to be minimized and an effort made to reduce the harm both to the user and the community.

He writes about the Swiss who have installed blue lights in all public bathrooms–it makes it difficult to find your veins if you’re trying to shoot-up in a public bathroom!  They also offer low cost clean syringes for sale all over the country.  They realize that dirty needles, not heroin, cause the spread of disease.  In addition, addicts can access the services of nurses and counselors in an effort to go straight and get back to jobs.

In contrast, in the U.S. we have criminalized the possession of all hard drugs and treat it with criminal sanctions–prison.  Certainly chemical dependency programs are offered but often they are in connection with the criminal justice system or prison.  Both of which are extremely expensive ways for us to pay for this problem when you add in the costs of law enforcement, the court system, probation, and prisons.

The state courts in Minnesota have taken a different approach that’s created a hybrid between the EU’s policy and strict criminal enforcement.  It’s called “Drug Court.”  While the state legislature continues to criminalize possession of hard drugs, when offenders are arrested and charged, if they are first time offenders, instead of the usual trial and prison if convicted, the courts offer them an alternative.

Probation officers and social workers become involved and offer treatment programs to the offenders.  If they successfully complete treatment and can demonstrate sobriety over a period of time, their criminal cases are dismissed.  The effect is to “decriminalize” the offenses–sort of.

The effort is not focused on punishment but rather, on reducing a public health problem.  Overall, the U.S. loses about 18,000 people to hard drug overdoses while Europe (with a much larger population) loses about 8,000.

Maybe we could learn something from them?


About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.


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