Norway’s decision to push drug felons through treatment is a huge step forward.
The question of whether to punish criminals or attempt to reform them is not new. While some are for maximum enforcement, including solitary confinement and the death penalty, others take the more humane route of trying to rehabilitate criminals to integrate back into society.
This question is especially heated when discussing drugs. America’s war has been a continual failure, from crack in the eighties through to opioids today. Defining what a drug is, how it can and can’t be used, and who can use it has proven to be more about politics and corporate interests than biology. Sugar is the most potent and deadly drug on the planet today, yet it is widely available, cheap, and celebrated.
So integrated into the fabric of society has sugar become that even the mention of it as a “drug” is certain to incite scoffs and sneers. We know alcohol is a drug, yet since it’s also wildly sanctioned (and wildly taxed) we consider it not to be that bad. Ditto cigarettes, even if those two kill hundreds of thousands more people a year than marijuana. Pull back far enough and everything we ingest is a drug, since everything results in a chemical reaction in our bodies.
Some countries are realizing this. Norway recently voted to completely decriminalize illegal drugs, as well as send offenders through treatment instead of prison. While parliamentary support for this bill has passed, it still must find its way through the government.
Sveinung Stensland, a deputy chairman of the Storting Health Committee, commented on the decision:
The change will take some time, but that means a changed vision: Those who have a substance abuse problem should be treated as ill, and not as criminals with classical sanctions such as fines and imprisonment.
This is no sudden decision; Norwegian politicians have been debating this for years. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drugs, which has resulted in a drastic reduction in HIV infections, overdoses, and drug-related crime. In 2001, for example, HIV infection affected 104.2 new cases per million; by 2015 that number had dropped to 4.2 cases.
Another big reaction was in social stigmatism. As The Guardian reports:
The language began to shift, too. Those who had been referred to sneeringly as drogados (junkies)—became known more broadly, more sympathetically, and more accurately, as “people who use drugs” or “people with addiction disorders.” This, too, was crucial.
João Goulão was one of two men behind Portugal’s first CAT (Centros de Atendimento a Toxicodependentes, a rehab facility) in 1988. He helped draft legislation for decriminalization in 1997. He notes that Portugal is a conservative country. The decision was more financial and social than about liberty and freedom. But drug use in the eighties and nineties had spread to affect every family in the nation:
There was a point when you could not find a single Portuguese family that wasn’t affected. Every family had their addict, or addicts. This was universal in a way that the society felt: ‘We have to do something.’
Twenty years later American families are struggling with an opioid epidemic that is still gaining force—fentanyl deaths increased 540 percent between 2014-2016. The 2017 data so far are not promising.
It is well known that Richard Nixon tied addiction to crime in order to suppress minorities and political radicals in the seventies. That mindset forced American legislators—and the American public—to relate certain substances as bad and others as good, or least benign. Since opioids are tied to the white working class, there has been much criticism of opioids being treated as an opportunity for compassion and understanding while crack, an inner city problem, was seen as a blight to be eradicated.
Full decriminalization might be the only way to sift through the scattered and conflicting reports on how substances act in our bodies. By understanding what drugs do and how they are either helpful or harmful, we can make appropriate decisions on how to treat their users.
Psychedelics such as psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD—all considered Schedule One substances, meaning they supposedly have no medical value—are proving to be clinically relevant for treating anxiety, depression, and end-of-life care. Marijuana is quickly becoming decriminalized on a state-by-state level as the positive effects of cannabinoids continue to roll in.
Norway’s decision to push felons through treatment is a step forward, though hopefully more detailed consideration of what drug each person is caught with will be taken into consideration. Heroin makes for a good candidate; marijuana, not so much, unless abuse level is truly crippling. That’s the problem with blanket regulations on disparate substances: you’re unfairly equating dissimilar drugs.
That said, progress is progress. Let’s hope America follows suit. First decriminalization, then a government-funded increase in technology and sugar addiction centers to combat our two main culprits.
One can dream.
Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Insert dial-up noise here. If you're not concerned about what's about to happen with net neutrality, you're not paying attention.
On December 14th, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will try to get rid of net neutrality, after the Obama administration passed the “Open Internet Order” in 2015. The order ensures that internet service providers (ISPs) treat all legal online content equally and bans them from blocking, prioritizing, or slowing some of it as well as being paid by companies to do so.
Here is John Oliver explaining net neutrality in a much funnier fashion.
Net neutrality seems like an issue that should be supported by both political sides. As Julian Assange pointed out recently in a provocative tweet to Donald Trump, without net neutrality Trump’s opponents who own most internet companies could make his “tweets load slowly, CNN load fast and infest everyone's phones with their ads.”
Dear @realDonaldTrump: 'net neutrality' of some form is important. Your opponents control most internet companies. Without neutrality they can make your tweets load slowly, CNN load fast and infest everyone's phones with their ads. Careful.
— Julian Assange
The new FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, however, promised to do away with it and a few days ago released the final draft of the proposal to end net neutrality.
The main goal is to reverse the reclassification of ISPs from “telecommunications service” (under Title II of the Communications Act) to “information service” (under Title I of the Communications Act), which will strip the FCC from the power to regulate the internet gatekeepers.
The reclassification happened in 2010 after the FCC wanted to impose net neutrality rules on ISPs, but was then successfully sued by Verizon, and the court pointed out that if the FCC wanted to have more regulatory power over ISPs, it needed to reclassify them. (Curiously, Ajit Pai used to be a lawyer for Verizon.)
What would it mean for the FCC to no longer have the same control over ISPs? Internet providers will be able to prioritize their own products and services over those of competitors by, for example, not counting them towards monthly data usage, or ensuring better traffic for them, or even by blocking competitors’ products, like in the infamous case of Verizon blocking Google Wallet.
To get an idea, we can also look at Portugal, a country that—even though it is covered under EU's net neutrality rules—has found big enough loopholes in them. The country’s wireless carrier Meo requires users to pay additionally for apps and services they would like to use, like WhatsApp, Facebook, Snapchat, and Messenger. Video apps are also offered as paid add-ons in a variety of bundles.
This kind of set up could easily harm smaller companies. If, for example, Snapchat and Messenger are in different bundles, each of which is an additional $4.99 to your plan, it is very likely that you will choose to use only one. Also, small businesses won’t have the resources to pay providers to push their content or products to the top. They could potentially lose all internet traffic.
Ajit Pai says that repealing net neutrality is good for consumers because it will allow for more investment from telecoms, but that is a weak argument. Research suggests that it is precisely open competition and not lack thereof that causes higher investment. As The Economist points out, “declining competition does more than harm some consumers; it makes firms lazy.”
Without net neutrality, telecoms won’t have to compete based on the quality of their products, but would be able to tie the hands and eyes of their customers to their products, whether or not the customers actually like them.
Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California wrote on Twitter:
"In Portugal, with no net neutrality, internet providers are starting to split the net into packages. A huge advantage for entrenched companies, but it totally ices out startups trying to get in front of people which stifles innovation. This is what's at stake, and that's why we have to save net neutrality."
The vote to repeal net neutrality regulations will happen on December 14th. Here are several ways to take action, compiled by Inverse.
Seattle has a new plan to reduce HIV, drug overdoses, and stray needles: it wants to let addicts shoot heroin and smoke crack legally in monitored spaces.
Seattle has a heroin epidemic. More people in the city and its surrounding county enter detox for heroin than alcohol, according to the Seattle Times. Heroin overdose deaths are climbing, especially among homeless people. That’s why the city created a task force to address the problem.
Its solution? Letting addicts shoot up legally.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Giving addicts safe, clean places to shoot up decreases the risk of infection, contamination, and death. Those places will be called safe consumption facilities. Drugs will not be provided, but addicts will receive clean needles and syringes. They will also be able to “take other addictive drugs under the supervision of trained authorities,“ reports The New York Times.
The idea isn’t new. Vancouver has had a safe-injection site since 2003, and it was also opened to help stem an overdose epidemic. Cities in Australia and the Netherlands have also had similar programs. Seattle already has a needle exchange program, so a safe consumption facility is a natural next step. That’s most likely why the task force endorsed the plan today.
Another benefit to safe consumption centers is that they could become a gateway for addiction treatment and even primary medical care. They are better options than methadone clinics, as University of Washington researcher Caleb Banta-Green explained to the Seattle Times: “Methadone-treatment centers are limited to 350 total patients by state law. Doctors may prescribe [buprenorphine] in their offices, but they need a special license and the number of patients any one doctor can treat is capped at 100.”
While all of these benefits seem theoretical, Seattle does actually have a real-world example to follow: Portugal. 16 years ago Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs, including heroin, as
VICE News reports. Critics of the plan expected overdoses to spike. They did not. 1% of Portugal’s population abused heroin in the late 1990s. Today, only 0.50% are abusing heroin, and most of them are seeking treatment. Better yet, overdose deaths decreased from 80 people per year to 16. That makes Portugal’s drug-induced death rate only 3 per million residents, almost 6x less than the EU’s. That’s also far less than America’s, where 14,000 people died from prescription overdoses in 2014 alone, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those results are staggering. While Portugal’s free healthcare system and smaller population make that kind of plan too simplistic to replicate wholesale in the US, there are still valuable lessons. “In a society where drugs are less stigmatized, problem users are more likely to seek out care,” VICE concludes. “Police, even if they suspect someone of using drugs, are less likely to bother them.” Seattle’s Mayor Ed Murray agreed with that sentiment, speaking a press conference earlier this year: “We can make a significant impact on homelessness if we make an impact on addiction.”
Both of these statements reveal the same conclusion: addiction is the real problem. Not the addict. And it can be overcome. Neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz explains how: