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It may not seem like it, what with all the horror stories regularly meted out by the media, but the Western world is seeing a steady decline in the use of dangerous drugs. With the exception of heroin, which (for various reasons, which we’ll go into a little later) is increasing its hold on the USA, more and more people are turning down the allure of drugs in favor of more regulated, less harmful entertainment.
Precise figures on this phenomenon are hard to come by - partly due to the obvious problems inherent in getting people to self-report such activity. However, surveys taken across Europe and the United States consistently report slow but steady drops in the rate of dangerous drug use reported. Heroin, crack, cocaine, and amphetamines are all finding less and less of a market in Europe and, while heroin continues to thrive in the USA, other substances are losing their appeal. Clearly this is excellent news. Drug abuse not only takes an enormous toll on the bodies, minds, and lives of addicts, the drug trade is also often the lynchpin of many criminal economies. A lessened market for dangerous drugs makes a life of crime far less tenable, and theoretically renders the streets safer than they have been in many places for years.
So what’s driving the drop? Well, in all fairness, some of it may be down to changing legislation surrounding drugs. More American states and European nations have relaxed (if not entirely dispensed with) their anti-cannabis laws, meaning that cannabis use is no longer strictly illegal. Taking cannabis out of the equation reduces the drug use statistics massively at one fell swoop - but doesn’t indicate that people have actually stopped using cannabis. By the same token, nations like Portugal have decriminalized the use (if not the sale) of dangerous drugs, meaning that Portugal’s statistics on drug use now look absolutely impeccable (given that no drugs are actively illegal to use).
Does this mean that the apparent reduction in drug use is all just semantics and statistics? Not quite. Legalization and regulation measures have, it seems, had a tangible impact upon the general safety of drug use. For a start, legalizing the use of drugs in some nations has led to people being far more likely to come forward for addiction treatment, rather than relying on unreliable and often dangerous ‘home’ treatments. As such, addiction rates in nations which have chosen to decriminalize the use of drugs are far, far lower than they would otherwise be. Portugal was the first nation to decriminalize the use of illegal drugs, and the results of the policy have been astonishing. Within a year of the decriminalization coming into effect, illegal drug use had plummeted among teenagers (perhaps because the thrill of ‘risk’ had been removed), rates of HIV infections gained through needle sharing had reduced sharply, and the number of people seeking treatment for addiction had doubled. Furthermore, as they were no longer having to waste time and resources pursuing drug users, law enforcement forces were able to truly concentrate on getting to the heart of the matter - drug dealers and traffickers. All in all, decriminalizing the use of drugs was not simply a trick by which Portugal could manipulate its drug statistics - it had significant tangible benefits for public health, public order, and Portuguese society in general.
Of course, there are less positive forces at work, which we should mention here. For a start, many European young people are turning to ‘legal highs’ rather than more established, drugs. ‘Legal highs’ are chemical substances which have not yet been banned, the wheels of the legislature turning far more slowly in most cases than the ‘legal high’ industry. In many cases, ‘legal highs’ are horrendously dangerous, and have taken a lot of young lives. Though not yet illegal, ‘legal highs’ are by no means a positive or safe thing.
Then there’s the issue of prescription drug addiction. This is particularly prevalent in the USA, which consumes an enormous 80% of the world’s pharmaceuticals. Strong opioid painkillers are highly addictive, and - though not illegal per se - it’s very easy to develop a dependency upon them. It’s thought that opioid painkiller addiction can lead to heroin addiction, as both substances contain the same active ingredient. Indeed, this may be the factor which is driving heroin addiction up in the USA.
Nonetheless, despite these caveats, the overall picture is a positive one. It seems that the Western world’s attitude towards drugs is changing. Legislation (or lack thereof) is becoming increasingly effective, and dangerous drugs seem to be becoming less popular with the public as a consequence. Perhaps most encouraging of all, more addicts are coming forward and seeking treatment for their problems. This willingness to change and ‘get clean’ is a great indicator that things are changing when it comes to drugs.
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