While I am deeply sympathetic with the slogan “No Justice! No Peace!” I’m afraid they have it backwards.
The United States, the self-proclaimed “leader of the Free World,” has less than 5% of the world population, but almost 25% of the world’s prison population. We are indeed, Number One! USA! USA! We even have more prisoners than China.
The violence of the Drug War manifests itself in several ways, but the major part of “law enforcement” violence does not involve the police shootings that provoke violent demonstrations, but rather the “peaceful” arrests of over half a million marijuana users who go quietly because they do not have any choice.
These “non-violent” arrests exceed the total number of arrests for all violent crimes combined. They also represent a huge waste of law enforcement resources that could have been much better utilized in dealing with actual violent crimes.
According to Statistica, “There were 101,120 strong-arm robberies in the United States in 2019. A strong-arm robbery involves the perpetrator using a weapon (either real or fake) in combination with a threat of force.”
Of course, those numbers only include those robberies reported to the police, so they do not include robberies committed within the contraband drug markets.
Now consider Portugal’s experience. Twenty years ago, it “decriminalized” possession of all drugs.
As the New York Times reported:
“Decriminalization does not mean no penalties, just no incarceration. People caught possessing or using illicit drugs may be penalized by regional panels made up of social workers, medical professionals and drug experts. The panels can refer people to drug treatment programs, hand out fines or impose community service.
A lot of the benefits over the years from Portugal’s policy shift have come not from decriminalization per se, but in the expansion of substance-use disorder treatment. Such a move might bring the most tangible benefit to the United States.”
In turn, the country made financial investments in harm reduction and treatment services. Research in the United States shows a dollar spent on treatment saves more than a dollar in crime reduction.
Opioid overdose deaths fell after Portugal’s policy change. So did new cases of diseases associated with injection drug use, such as hepatitis C and H.I.V. This latter change could also be a result of increases in needle exchange programs in the country. Those programs often meet opposition in the United States, but a cost-effectiveness analysis published in 2014 replicated the research of others in finding that a dollar invested in syringe exchange programs in the United States saves at least six dollars in avoided costs associated with H.I.V. alone.
Harm reduction through needle exchanges and greater treatment availability are among the reasons for the wide disparity in drug overdose deaths between the United States (with a rising and staggering total of nearly 72,000 last year) and European countries like Portugal (which typically has well below 100 such deaths a year). These reflect a different mind-set on addiction; in Portugal, it’s treated strictly as a disease.
It is also important to note that Portugal ranks third on the “Global Peace Index” among all countries. The United States ranks 128th, just ahead of Saudi Arabia! Mexico is 140th. The Netherlands, where cannabis has been sold over-the-counter for decades, ranks 17th.
Of course, there are many other factors involved in influencing levels of violence, but clearly the Drug War does not contribute to social peace, and we need to learn from other countries.
Richard Cowan is a former NORML National Director and author of Some Facts About CBD Products.
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