Let's solve the drug problem

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Prohibiting drugs has destroyed more lives than their use. People who take controlled substances should no longer be punished. Five ideas for a new drug policy.

Lesen Sie hier die deutsche Fassung des Artikels.

1 — Current Drug Policies Must Be Abandoned

Everyone learns that illegal drugs are dangerous and harmful. Those who take cocaine, smoke pot, swallow pills or snort powder will become addicted and fall to pieces, it is said. That's why authorities around the world don't just go after those who cultivate, produce, deal or possess drugs. People who take drugs are also treated as criminals; they are punished and even put behind bars. Conventional wisdom holds that we are all better off if people are no longer taking drugs.

Yet even the stiffest of laws have failed to reduce consumption. Today, an estimated 300 million people around the world take illegal substances. The strict policy of prohibition has protected few and has caused new problems. In Latin America and Southeast Asia, many people are losing their lives in wars between police, the military and drug cartels. Almost everywhere, addicts are ostracized rather than being provided sensible treatment. And it's not just in the United States that harmless consumers are imprisoned and stigmatized as criminals and addicts.

Most substances should be made available

Something must change. A prudent drug policy would limit the damage done to health and the community. International treaties and laws must accept that humans have a basic need for intoxication.

New approaches are needed that support people rather than criminalize them. The legalization of all drugs wouldn't be a solution, but new types of controls that are based on scientific criteria would make sense. What might such policies look like? Perhaps like this:

2 — The Tenets of a New Drug Policy

  • The state regulates who can produce and sell drugs

    Those who want to produce or cultivate drugs must obtain official state approval. Specifications would be set for the permissible ingredients, dosage and the scope of production, with the details determined by a government-appointed drug control board comprised of scientists, doctors and experts on prevention and addition. Each drug should be classified according to the risks it poses. Only the most damaging of substances – like heroin, crack or crystal meth, for example – should be prohibited from purchase or production.

    The growth of herbal drugs like cannabis should only be allowed at specific and secured locations. Synthetic drugs like amphetamines or MDMA may only be produced in certified laboratories.

    Drugs for consumption would only be available in special stores. Neither pharmacies nor supermarkets nor gas stations should be allowed to sell psychoactive substances. This applies not only to cannabis or ecstasy, but also to alcohol and tobacco. The substances made available for purchase would also be determined by the drug control board.

    Those seeking to sell drugs must obtain a license and adhere to strict conditions: They must follow stringent youth protection measures; inform customers about addiction, the potential for health risks and other inherent hazards; and hire and provide ongoing training to personnel who are schooled in prevention and education.

    Anyone under the age of 14 should be categorically denied access to drugs. Those between the ages of 15 and 16 would only be able to consume certain substances and only in the presence of an adult – preferably, their legal guardian. This would apply, for example, to beer, wine or sparkling wine in restaurants. Similar rules could be conceivable for less harmful drugs like cannabis. Youth could be allowed to purchase low-percentage alcohol and very small quantities of cannabis (around a gram). Most drugs, including tobacco and spirits with high alcohol content, would only be available to those 18 and older.

    A limit would be set for the maximum amount of each substance adults are allowed to purchase for personal use. The limit would be determined by the drugs control board. For cannabis, it could be a maximum of 20 grams; with a maximum of 10 pills for ecstasy. The limit would be based on the concentration of the drug's intoxicating active ingredient.

    Drugs would have to be stored securely by producers and sellers. Cultivation areas would have to be fenced in and drugs in stores kept secure from theft. Active ingredients would have to be clearly labeled and drugs could only be obtained from certified producers.

    The controlled sale of drugs such as alcohol and tobacco at bars or restaurants could continue in accordance with current practice. Special rules for cannabis and other less harmful substances would also be possible.

    Those who violate these conditions by selling drugs to children or youth, or by producing or selling drugs without a license, would be punished. The severity of the violation would determine whether a fine or jail sentence is imposed.

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  • Those who take drugs do not as such become prosecutable

    Those who take drugs endanger themselves, but not necessarily others. That's why consumers should not be prosecuted as long they only use and possess drugs, including illegal substances, for personal consumption.

    Those who become dependent, have health problems or have trouble with their jobs or studies as a result of drug consumption should be provided with assistance in the form of counseling or therapy. To that end, governments should establish drug counselling centers. Regulated sales of drugs could be taxed and the extra revenue earmarked for prevention measures.

    But those who endanger others, for example, by driving while drunk or high, must be punished – by a fine or forfeiture of their driver's license. Rules would be established for every drug in the same way that a blood-alcohol limit is set today for the consumption of alcohol.

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  • Protect consumers and reduce harm

    No drug is harmless. That's why consumers need to be educated on how to ensure that intoxicating substances do the least harm to them. Prevention and education about the effects of drugs must be addressed in the classroom and should become a mandatory part of the curriculum starting in the sixth grade.

    Just as agencies like Germany's Federal Center for Health Education provide information about lowering the risks associated with drinking alcohol, tips should also be provided for all drugs. Package inserts for drugs available for purchase must contain such information for those who are particularly at risk, like pregnant women or those suffering from an illness.

    The quality and purity of drugs available for purchase must be inspected by the authorities both during production and in the shops. In addition, it should be possible for users to test drugs prior to consumption to ensure they are not taking a drug containing toxic chemicals. Testing labs, in nightclubs for example, would also test banned drugs. These testing sites would be operated by trained personnel who can inform users of the associated risks and provide assistance in cases of problem consumption.

    Addicts should be provided with medical treatment, including those who take prohibited drugs. They are patients, not criminals. Heroin addicts and people who inject drugs should be provided with medical care in specially equipped consumption rooms where they are provided with sterile needles. That can help to reduce damage to a person's health and makes it easier to break addiction.

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  • Children and youth should be forbidden from using drugs

    All drugs should be prohibited for children and youth. Exceptions should only be made for the consumption of certain substances (for example drinks with low alcohol content like beer or small amounts of cannabis) in the presence of a legal guardian or adult. In order to protect young people and everyone else, advertising should be prohibited. Alcohol and tobacco ads should also be banned.

    Those who are 16 or older should be allowed to buy beer, wine, sparkling wine and small amounts of cannabis. Those 18 and older should also be allowed to purchase ecstasy and spirits. Consumption, however, should require the possession of a special permit. These permits would be provided by doctors or drug counselling centers to people who can verify that they are aware of the potential consequences of taking drugs and know how to protect themselves from these risks. The permit must be shown when buying drugs. Licenses could be issued by the Federal Center for Health Education in Germany – or its equivalent in other countries – in cooperation with schools, counseling centers, addiction assistance facilities or doctors. These facilities could also prepare applicants for obtaining the permit and inform people about drugs.

    Children and youth who violate these rules and take intoxicating substances that are not allowed, or not yet allowed, will not be prosecuted. They would receive counseling and a delay could be imposed on when they are able to obtain their license for driving a moped or a car. Community service could also be imposed. Those whose consumption leads to health problems despite all precautions will be provided with medical treatment and offered therapy.

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  • Researchers should develop drugs that are less harmful

    Many people want to get intoxicated every now and then, either to have some fun or to improve their concentration. In order to provide protection for these people, specially designed substances should be developed that pose fewer health risks or are less addicting.

    For this reason, research into psychoactive substances should not only be permitted, but also supported by way of government funding. The goal should be damage control, low-risk consumption and even potential medical applications.

    Many psychoactive substances can help in treating illnesses. Used as a medication, cannabis reduces chronic pain and there is also evidence that LSD can mitigate trauma. The positive effects of drugs should be tapped in the development of new medications.

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3 — Where Countries Are Beginning to Rethink Policy

Some of the principles listed here are already being tested. A number of countries or states have turned away from strict prohibition policies. And they have been successful.

Decriminalization does not automatically lead to an increase in drug use

Colorado in the United States provides an example for how the distribution of cannabis can be controlled through the licensing of cultivation, production and sales in special stores. Rules of this nature could also be conceivable in Germany. The Green Party proposed similar measures here this year with the publication of a draft Cannabis Control Law.

When the consumption of drugs is decriminalized, it does not automatically lead to an increase in the number of people using intoxicating substances. Portugal, which has successfully pursued this policy for 15 years now, provides a good case study. The country provides counseling and medical care to addicts. Since the policy's introduction, fewer people consume the dangerous drug heroin than was previously the case.

Already today, Germany and Switzerland offer drug replacement therapies for addicts. These measures limit damage to health in addition to reducing drug-related crime. The criminalization of addicts in the past contributed to a disproportionately high rate of HIV or hepatitis infections among heroin addicts. In Switzerland, normal doctors are even permitted to prescribe certain dosages of drug replacements to addicts.

Those who eschew drugs lead healthier lives. But that's not realistic for all

In New Zealand, research is permitted into psychoactive substances for the purpose of developing medications or protecting health. One law even permits licensed producers to manufacture substances as psychoactive stimulants. These can also be sold as long as the risks are low and can be easily controlled.

Of course, people who eschew drugs completely live healthier lives. But that is not a realistic lifestyle for all and for most people, getting high every now and then poses no problems. Only 11 percent of all people who consume alcohol, tobacco or banned substances eventually develop serious health problems like addiction. Eighty-nine percent have no ill effects on their day-to-day lives (Beyrer et al., The Lancet, 2016).

4 — Join the Debate!

Are you afraid your children will develop an addiction and are thus in favor of stricter controls on drugs and tougher penalties? You know how dangerous alcohol and tobacco are and don't understand why drinking and smoking aren't prohibited? Or do you have a more permissive view?

Translation: Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey