This article will stir up conversation, controversy, and bring about a spiritual debate – GOOD, that’s its intent!
In 1999, Portugal had the highest rate of drug-related AIDS in the EU, the second-highest rate of HIV amount people who inject drugs, and drug overdoses were increasing year after year.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all recreational drugs – including marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Since this historic 360-degree change in policy, the number of people voluntarily entering treatment has dramatically increased, overdose deaths and HIV infections drug users have plummeted, incarceration for drug-related offenses has decreased, and rates of problematic and adolescent drug use has fallen. Today in America, the battle rages against the “War on Drugs” – and the casualties continue to climb.
According to the CDC:
- From 1999 to 2017, more than 700,000 people have died from a drug overdose
- Around 68% of the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017 involved an opioid
- In 2017, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids was six times higher than in 1999
- On average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose
In the United States, 1.4 million people are arrested each year for drug possession for personal use. However, the impact of these arrests brings to light a multitude of other barriers facing those incarcerated, to include: housing, education, employment, and family dynamic. In 2018, the combined federal drug control budget request was $27.57 billion.
So, what led to Portugal’s thought process in implementing such a comprehensive policy? Enter, the Rat Park. The Portuguese government appointed a committee of experts, including doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and social activists, to study the drug addiction problem facing the country. Collectively, this group of experts was tasked with changing the perception of drug use and addiction – below were the recommendations to ensure that a change in policy would bring about accurate results.
- Drugs and drug use are not inherently evil
- A drug-free society is unattainable
- People use drugs for many reasons
- Punitive policies are unethical and ineffectual
In 2000, the Portuguese government created the Commissions for the Discussion of Drug Abuse, under the Ministry of Health. The task concentrates on the human, not the substance – for, in effect, the substance is immaterial. Under the policy, when law enforcement encountered people who were using or possessing drugs, they confiscated their substances and referred them to a Dissuasion Commission, tasked with deciding whether and to what extent the person demonstrates dependency on drugs. During this time of evaluation, an individual’s health, housing, education, and employment would all be evaluated to determine what level of additional assistance and resources were needed beyond addiction therapy.
The funding? Easy. Portugal decided to use national funds that were once allocated to battle drugs (courts, law enforcement, etc.) and instead use them to finance and provide these valuable resources to rehabilitate the human, beyond he or she’s a dependency on substances.
American psychologist, Dr. Bruce Alexander, designed an experiment in the 1970s, called “Rat Park.” Researchers had already proved that when rats were placed in a cage, all alone, with no other community of rats, and offered two water bottles—one filled with water and the other with heroin or cocaine—the rats would repetitively drink from the drug-laced bottles until they all overdosed and died. Like pigeons pressing a pleasure lever, they were relentless, until their bodies and brains were overcome, and they died.
But Alexander wondered: is this about the drug or might it be related to the setting they were in? To test his hypothesis, he put rats in “rat parks,” where they were among others and free to roam and play, to socialize and to have sex. And they were given the same access to the same two types of drug-laced bottles. When inhabiting a “rat park,” they remarkably preferred the plain water. Even when they did imbibe from the drug-filled bottle, they did so intermittently, not obsessively, and never overdosed. A social community beat the power of drugs.
Alexander’s experiment drove the Portuguese government to try something that had never been tried before – beyond drug decriminalization, to focus on the inherent needs of human beings. The necessity of love, support, emotional and financial stability – all the things that all humans need, but some lack. More often, those who are lacking the above find themselves in finding pleasure and acceptance in something, if not people, than substances. Humans, like rats and other species, are communal and social creatures – wishing to be among over being alone.
As a nation, we are rotting in self-desires and instant gratifications. More often, people wish to escape the realities of the world, in preference to just wanting to be happy. Relationships, employment, and financial stability, education, and housing are all issues that people face. Those who battle these issues alone are susceptible and vulnerable to stray from the pack. As fellow residents of the “Rat Park,” wishing acceptance and communal belonging, we would not be better served as a people to extend a helping hand rather than a set of handcuffs to those individuals whose sole desire is to rejoin the “Rat Ranks?”
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