How Do We Solve Our Drug Problem?

I recently got into a conversation with a co-worker over the infamous El Chapo and the trafficking of illegal drugs, in general. At the beginning of the conversation, I was against El Chapo or more specifically, I was under the assumption that the best course of action would be to extradite him to America, since he has been captured in correlation with the Sean Penn interview. I mean, at face value, it makes sense right? A bad guy doing bad things should go to prison, all while halting the drug trade.

The conversation-turned-debate seemed to end with both of us believing what we went into the argument thinking, as most situations like this do, as most people want to hear themselves talk more than they want to gain a new understanding on a subject. Afterwards though, I become consumed by the idea that drugs, despite our best efforts, continue to make their way across borders and spawn new addicts each day.

After reading both sides of the argument on El Chapo, I came to this conclusion: my co-worker may be half-right. Detaining him will have no positive effect on the accessibility of drugs and the people who sell/manufacture them; in fact, it will have an adverse effect. Capturing the leader of a cartel merely gives rival cartels the incentive to overthrow their territory. This spawns attacks and bloodshed that otherwise would have been minimal in comparison. This all occurs while drug trafficking continues, barely interrupted as someone steps up in the present cartel or another gang takes its place.

So then, what do we do to stop our current drug problem if catching the 'main bad guy' is not the solution? The answer may lie in Europe; more specifically: 

In 2001, Portugal did the unbelievable: they legalized all drugs. The country had been waging a war on drugs for a long time, as America has, and found that despite imprisoning drug abusers and punishing them for using, they found that the problem continued to get worse. At the time, a little over 1% of the entire population was addicted to heroin, which unsurprisingly, correlated with another growing statistic: AIDS was on the rise.

Realizing that the way they were dealing with addicts was not working, they did what any rational government would do and instead of giving the decision-making powers to other politicians with law and business degrees, they handed it over to STEM-literate scientists. The scientists went back to their labs and universities and began to really break down what made a drug abuser an 'addict'. Some of the research done involved the Vietnam War, where a large portion of our troops were using heroin while over seas.  Our American government officials were afraid that when the men and women returned home from war, that they would be addicted and we would have an epidemic, however this did not happen. 

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It turns out, only 5% continued to use, while 95% stopped. With the traditional idea that drugs are hooks in our brain that create addiction, this didn't seem possible. After extensive research, the scientists returned to the government officials and told them to legalize it all. At first, this seemed contradictory to the goal, but then they explained.

They found that the reason most addicts go back to abusing after going through a program or rehab, was because of a societal disconnect. When people who are released from rehab have a caring family, loved one, or close friend to go back to, they are less likely to continue using. On top of that, like Portugal, you take the money spent on imprisoning these men and women and the allocated dollars toward the war on drugs, and redirect it to business owners.

Why Business owners? If you give that money to them and pay half of an addicts salary, the company has an incentive to give the addicts a second chance. As an added bonus, the drug abuser can go to rehab and then be given a reason to get up in the morning. It's a win/win for a pocket of money we are spending either way.

If it worked in Portugal, it can work here and everywhere else. Will this guarantee a 0% margin of users? Obviously, no, but it will work a lot better than our current plan. The drug war is a failed idea and I for one, think it's time to realize our mistake as a nation and put a stop to it.

For further information on this idea, check out Johann Hari's TED Talk on the subject: