The war on drugs costs the United States 47 billion dollars a year. In 2016, the U.S. jailed two million people for drug offenses. And in 2017, 72,000 people died from accidental drug overdoses. It’s safe to say the conflict has been a costly failure.
In 2014, journalist Johann Hari began studying the root causes of addiction. He asked why are we at war with drug addicts? Is it the illegality of drugs that destroys addicts, or the drugs themselves? When societies ban a drug and then they criminalize its users aren’t they barking up the wrong tree?
An innovative scheme in Switzerland suggests the answer is as plain as day: unique treatment centers for drug addicts. In these centers, addicts are provided with clean needles and a place to inject. They are also given as much medical grade heroin as they need in safe doses.
People feared such a program would lead to a stark increase in drug addiction. It didn’t. Instead, it led to a decrease in both usage and drug-related crimes. Medical prescription has destroyed heroin’s image in Switzerland. The Swiss now see users as people with a chronic disease, not as criminals.
Prescription heroin also enables users to buck the trend of antisocial behavior. Without resorting to desperate measures to get the drugs, users have enough breathing space to get their lives back on track.
During his studies, Hari stumbled across a breakthrough experiment. Early in the 20th century, rats were put alone in a cage with two water bottles. One contained clean water, while the other was laced with either heroin or cocaine. The rat would usually go hog wild for the drugged water.
Researchers believed this proved that the drug was the most relevant factor in addiction.
This explanation didn’t sit well with Doctor Bruce Alexander. He believed placing a rat in solitary confinement with nothing to do except take drugs was flawed. In 1979, he repeated the experiment. This time around he put the rodents in a bigger and more stimulating cage called the Rat Park. With a partner to mate with and plenty of cheese and toys to stimulate them, the outcome was different. The rats ignored the water laced with drugs.
Hari believed the experiment proved the environment we live in plays an important role in addiction. He suggests throwing addicts in jail is aggravating the problem. Prison for an addict is the human equivalent of the standard rat cage. It erodes their self-esteem and alienates them from society. This lack of connection leads to a vicious cycle of increased addiction.
It seems that the results speak for themselves. Perhaps we should all consider a more reasonable and humane approach to the war on drugs. Legalization might just be the way to restore order to this chaos.