Criminalization of Drug and Alcohol Addiction

There are three main models when it comes to drug and alcohol policy: prohibition, decriminalization and legalization. Prohibition sees the outright banning of illegal substances. Decriminalization makes carrying a small amount of a drug that is otherwise a crime to manufacture or carry in large quantities a non-criminal act.

The laws on drugs of a particular country or state determine whether drug addiction is seen as a criminal offence or not. In places where prohibition is followed, the use or possession of prohibited drugs is criminal. Decriminalization sees the laws distinguish between an amount considered reasonable for personal use and an amount considered to be evidence of intent to traffic or sell. Drug users or drug carriers of small amounts do not face legal action in places where decriminalization is in effect.

Alcohol Prohibition

Alcohol is legalized in most nations. Among the countries that prosecute people for drinking alcohol or being drunk in public are the Muslim-majority nations of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Punishments for alcohol consumption in these countries range from lashings to prison sentences. In places where alcohol is prohibited, addicts often have little recourse to treatment. In seeking treatment, they may face action for alcohol consumption if their condition is not kept private.

Drug Prohibition

As a means of preventing drug use, drugs are prohibited by law in many countries. Psychoactive drugs are among the drugs most commonly banned through legislation. Other drugs, such as steroids, are prohibited, or at least heavily regulated, in most countries. The following drugs are among the most frequently prohibited or strictly regulated:

* Cannabis
* Empathogen-entactogen drugs: MDMA (ecstasy)
* Stimulants: cocaine, dextroamphetamine (dexedrine), amphetamine (adderall), methamphetamine (desoxyn), methylphenidate (ritalin), and methcathinone
* Opiates: codeine, morphine, hydrocodone (hycodan, vicodin), hydromorphone (dilaudid), oxycodone (oxycontin; percocet), and heroin
* Hallucinogens: LSD, peyote, mescaline, and psilocybin
* Benzodiazepines: flunitrazepam (hypnor; rohypnol; flunipam), temazepam (normison; restoril; euhypnos), and nimetazepam (erimin)
* Barbiturates: secobarbital (seconal), pentobarbital (nembutal), and amobarbital (amytal)
* Benzodiazepines: flunitrazepam (hypnor; rohypnol; flunipam), and temazepam (normison)
* Sedatives: methaqualone (quaalude) and GHB
* Dissociatives: ketamine and phencyclidine (PCP)

Drug Policies

Drug policies vary from country to country, from outright prohibition to decriminalization. Here is an overview of the drug policies of select countries:

* United States: it is a crime to carry prohibited drugs – whether for personal use or sale. The severity of the punishment for possession of an illegal drug varies from a fine to a prison sentence, according to the kind of drug, the quantity, the situation and the jurisdiction.
* Australia: there is a movement to decriminalize cannabis in some states. In states that take a lenient approach to cannabis, those found in possession of small amounts often face a small fine and are offered the option to join a drug and alcohol program. In general, punishment for drug use, and even dealing, is small. It is unusual for small-scale drug dealers to serve time in prison.
* Netherlands: cannabis is partly decriminalized. The use of cannabis and the purchase of a small quantity for personal use in designated coffee shops are allowed in some cities. However, in 2012, new legislation will see the sale of cannabis limited to adult Dutch citizens who are members of a private club. Unlike many countries, the Netherlands does not consider hard drug users as criminals. Heroine and cocaine have been decriminalized. It is only when a person is caught in possession of more than the prescribed amount for personal use that a fine or a prison sentence is considered.
* Indonesia: drug use carries a stiff penalty, with a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. Drug dealing may result in the death penalty. Possession typically entails a one to five-year prison term.
* Switzerland: up until 1992, Switzerland followed the Dutch model of decriminalization. This policy has since been rejected largely due to the increase in crime experienced during the period of decriminalization.
* Spain: as in Italy, the use of cocaine and heroine is legal. Both countries have Europe’s highest rates of overdose and addiction.
* Singapore: the death sentence applies to drug traffickers caught in possession of one ounce of cocaine, half an ounce of heroine or 17 ounces of cannabis.
* Viet Nam: the death sentence applies to those caught in possession of 1.3 pounds of heroine or more.
* Portugal: has decriminalized the possession and use of a number of previously prohibited drugs, including cocaine, heroine and cannabis. No action, a fine or treatment are common ways of handling drug users found in possession of small quantities of decriminalized drugs.

Shift in Drug Policies

In many countries, the incarceration rate of drug offenders and addicts is growing rapidly at great cost to tax payers. Many of those imprisoned are convicted of possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. The burden of sustaining such a large prison community is just one reason why more and more nations are considering alternatives to prohibition and the resulting criminalization of addiction.

Supporters of decriminalization, or even legalization, often argue that drug and alcohol addiction is an illness, not a crime. There is evidence to support treatment and prevention as more effective ways to overcome drug-related problems, such as crime and disease, than incarceration alone. This is backed by statistics on Portugal, which has made headway in common drug problems since the decriminalization of a number of drugs, including heroine, in 2001. Among the improvements is a significant drop in the number of drug overdoses resulting in death as well as a reduction in drug-related HIV infection.

Which Model Works Best

There are both advantages and disadvantages to the criminalization and decriminalization of drugs and alcohol. Prohibition criminalizes drug or alcohol addiction by making it a crime for addicts to carry or use prohibited drugs or alcohol. Often prohibition means those caught in possession of small amounts of illicit drugs or alcohol are heavily fined, sentenced to prison or even physically punished. In systems where drug addiction is not a crime, only addicts who cause disruption to civil order are prosecuted.

Decriminalization is increasingly being seen as a practical approach to drug problems and the huge costs associated with the incarceration of drug addicts. More and more countries are considering the use of drugs as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue. This shift has seen a growing focus on the treatment rather than the incarceration of drug addicts. Many nations are now recognizing that drug and alcohol abuse treatment plays a crucial role in the rehabilitation of drug addicts. Yet treatment alone is rarely thought to be a one-stop solution to the problems surrounding drug use and addiction.

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