Ireland is rightit’s time to rethink how we treat heroin users

This week, Ireland took a bold step in ending the war on drugs: The nation announced this week thatas part of a broader program to decriminalize not only cannabis but cocaine and herointhe country will create specially designated rooms in Dublin where addicts can safely and legally inject themselves with small amounts of their drugs. This plan coincides with recent bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to legalize recreational marijuanato which the Internet responded with predictable enthusiasm.

It makes sense that Web users would be inclined to applaud Sanders legislative proposal. A Pew Research Center survey taken in April found that 53 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, including 68 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 and 52 percent of those between the ages of 35 and 50; well over 80 percent of Americans in those age brackets actively use the Internet in their day-to-day lives.

This generation has largely fueled the movement to legalize marijuana in the U.Swith states like California, Maine, and Maryland allowing personal use of cannabis. And its time for the Internet to follow Irelands lead by pushing for the decriminalize heroin.

The country will create specially designated rooms in Dublin where addicts can safely and legally inject themselves with small amounts of their drugs.

For one thing, the underlying issues involved in Irelands new policy on addressing heroin addiction are very similar to the ones at play when it comes to marijuana legalization. In a recent speech explaining his position on pot, Sanders explained that there is a racial dimension to the issue. Although about the same proportion of blacks and whites use marijuana, a black person is almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person,” he argued.

The same is true for harder drugs: Statistics show that drugs more likely to be used by racial minorities (e.g., heroin) are given particularly severe punishments, and African-Americans are more likely to serve time than whites for the same drug-related offenses. As T. C. Sottek of the Verge put it, the war on drugs is one of the reasons blacks make up just 13 percent of the population but roughly half of all prison inmates.

The war on drugs also helps explain why police tactics have become increasingly militarized. Because Americas drug policy focuses on arresting offenders rather than providing addiction treatment, police officers are inevitably encouraged to come up with increasingly sophisticated ways of putting drug users behind bars.

As recently as last year, the United States Department of Defense provided $4 billion in surplus military equipment to local police for free in part to more effectively apprehend drug dealers and users. The war on drugs has created a culture of violence and puts police in an impossible situation, explained Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a speech during his 2016 presidential campaign.

While there is merit to these concerns, even critics like Schauffler acknowledge that most of the addicts who use the program claim to have been helped by it. Considering the programs success, it makes sense that Ireland would implement a similar initiative as part of what the countrys chief of National Drugs Strategy referred to as a radical cultural shift.

This brings us back to the fundamental question: Is the ultimate objective simply to punish people or to reduce drug abuse and help its victims?

If America aims to do the latter, then it will be necessary for our leaders to implement bold, even unorthodox approaches to this problem. In this respect, the policy of offering safe spaces for heroin addicts to use in moderation has the dual advantage of both being known to work and reducing the stigma associated with drug use. After all, by treating the heroin use as a disease to be treated rather than a crime to be punished, countries like Switzerland and Canada have simultaneously improved the lives of drug abusers and significantly reduced violent crime rates.

Should the Internet be looking for its next great cause, marijuana legalization supporters should look no further.

Matt Rozsa is a Ph. D. student in American history at Lehigh University who specializes in national politics. As a political columnist, his editorials have been published on Salon, Mic, and MSNBC.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

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