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I believe that the war on drugs has been a grave disservice to the American people. As with prohibition, the treatment of the medical issue of addiction as a criminal issue has caused far more harm than good.The United States currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the war on drugs is a sizable contributor, with roughly half of all inmates in federal prisons locked up for drug related crimes. While this increase in crime may be good for those who profit from the criminal justice system, it is bad for America as a whole. It is not just the crime at home that we should be concerned about, however. Our drug policies have enabled the rise of vicious cartels in Central and South America. These cartels have created a steady stream of refugees, who are then subjected to our immigration system. 

The primary drug most people talk about when discussing the war on drugs is marijuana, which I believe merits special attention. As a drug, marijuana is less harmful than tobacco or alcohol, and normal use should be treated in the same way. It has demonstrated medical benefits that are currently being denied to people in need, and hemp has a number of commercial uses. There is no legitimate reason to keep marijuana illegal, but several industrial lobbies will continue fighting legalization to prevent it as a threat to their own profits. Drugs like heroin and cocaine are far more dangerous, but still should be treated medically than criminally.

The case that our current drug policy is unsustainable is strong, but many people worry that legalization will lead to widespread addiction and associated problems. Fortunately, there is a model we can use to prevent that from happening. In 2001, Portugal abolished all criminal penalties for possession of any drug. Individuals found in possession of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser for treatment recommendations, which may be refused with no criminal penalty. In the five years after the policy was implemented, drug use among teens and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles both dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.  Switzerland is another example where drug users are not arrested, but treated by doctors.  Their approach has made them pioneers around the world.

There is nothing preventing the United States from adopting a similar system. The benefits of doing so would be immeasurable. Fewer people locked up, safer neighborhoods, improved relations between communities and police, and even fewer people using drugs. It may be difficult to bring the country around to the mindset of seeing drug use and addiction as a public health problem rather than a criminal one, but that doesn't mean it doesn't need, nor cannot,  be done.


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