Column: Addressing Substance Abuse

November 12, 2019

[Opinion column written by Glenn Fubler]

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

The above quote from Albert Einstein is applicable to the matter of how most countries have, for decades, prosecuted a ‘War on Drugs,’ unsuccessfully attempting to address the challenge of substance abuse. November 11th marked ‘Armistice Day’, commemorating the ending of World War I. This milestone offers the opportunity to end that ‘War on Drugs’, making a change to get different results.

The United States has championed this war for many decades. Their leadership has not appreciated the lessons of the Prohibition when the U.S. unsuccessfully attempted to ban alcoholic consumption during the 20s and 30s. Rather than addressing abuse, that ban saw the evolution of the organized crime in America.

After decades of prosecuting the ‘War on Drugs’, the U.S. today is experiencing an opioid crisis. During 2016, nearly 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses generally and in 2017, 47,000 died from opioid overdoses alone. It is arguable that these are causalities of that unsuccessful war. It should be noted that investigative reports in the media – 60 Minutes, etc. – have exposed connections between large pharmaceutical companies and this epidemic.

There seems no evidence that these tragic opioid circumstances are being replicated in Bermuda. However, given the influence of our large neighbour over our small community, we would do well to be proactive. We remain a jurisdiction affected by general substance abuse – like most nations which have seen no positive results from this ‘war’.

A direct outcome to the war is that the U.S. happens to have the highest incarceration rates – per capita – in the world. A majority of those incarcerated being convicted of drug related offences. Logic would suggest that based on this statistic America would have been on top of substance abuse. However, the reality of the opioid crisis points in the opposite direction. This provides a clear signal, calling for a change in approach.

While America continues to lead this global war, there is evidence, even across their political divide, of a recognition for the need for change. Other countries have been exploring alternate approaches to substance abuse. One such nation is Portugal; a country with which Bermuda has just celebrated a 170 year relationship.

Since 2001, Portugal has employed a progressive approach to addressing substance abuse. The Portuguese government – for the past two decades – has chosen an armistice rather than a war. They have opted for an approach based on public health tenets, rather than a criminal justice paradigm which had criminalized thousands of people. Portugal has gained the attention of other governments, since the Portuguese experiment has born positive results.

In 2001, Portugal transformed their legal code, effectively decriminalizing the personal use of all mind-altering substances. This has meant that for the past 18 years, while it remains illegal to sell substances such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, etc in Portugal; it is not illegal persons to use those substances. There have been measurable positive outcomes, with a win for their entire society:

  • There has been a marked reduction of deaths related to substance use.
  • Other health measures have improved for users.
  • Levels of incarceration in prisons have fallen significantly.
  • Indicators assessing the levels of use of these substances have – unexpectedly – declined.

Portugal traditionally has been a conservative culture. However, circumstances led them to make this major shift which has transcended any political divides in the country. Commentators have noted that the outcome has seen a major cultural shift; those caught up in substances are no longer demonized. Therefore, those affected are much more willing to seek medical and counselling assistance.

Bermuda has already taken an important step in this direction; decriminalizing small quantities of marijuana. Our government might consider taking the opportunity of leveraging our relationship with Portugal to explore the lessons from their two decade experiment.

Let’s get beyond the war and choose an armistice for the sake of upcoming generations.

- Glenn Fubler


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