June 17 marks the 44th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's war on drugs. America's longest war has destroyed millions of lives, and turned the U.S. into the world's leading incarcerator with less than five percent of the world's population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners.
Instead of the "drug-free America" promised by this disastrous war, drugs are as available as ever and overdose deaths have skyrocketed, overtaking car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death. Punitive policies and ignorance have destroyed millions of families.
This all might sounds hopeless, but there's good reason for hope.
Innovative drug policies being practiced around the world are keeping people out of prison, getting help for those who need it, reducing HIV, crime and overdose deaths.
To truly treat drug use as a health issue and end our country's unwinnable war, we need to implement three proven strategies.
1) Drug Decriminalization
No other health issue is criminalized like drug use and addiction. With increasing support to end the war on drugs and mass incarceration, and move toward a health-centered approach, it's time for the decriminalization of all drugs.
Decriminalization is commonly defined as the elimination of criminal penalties for drug possession for personal use. It means that no one is arrested, jailed, prosecuted, or saddled with a criminal record for using or possessing a drug.
Decriminalization can help minimize overdose, disease and addiction, while substantially reducing the number of people in the criminal justice system.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the possession of small amounts of all illicit drugs. The results are inspiring: decreased youth drug use, drastic reductions in overdose and HIV/AIDS rates, less crime, improved access to drug treatment - and, most importantly, safer and healthier communities.
2) Supervised Injection Facilities
In much of the U.S., sterile syringes are illegal to possess or difficult to access -- which pushes people to inject drugs in more dangerous ways.
Many countries have taken an innovative approach that has proved successful: supervised injection facilities (SIFs). These are controlled health care settings where people can more safely inject drugs under clinical supervision and receive medical care, counseling and referrals to health and social services, including drug treatment. There is overwhelming evidence that SIFs are effective in reducing new HIV infections, overdose deaths and public nuisance -- without increasing drug use or criminal activity.
There are currently 92 such facilities operating in 62 cities around the world -- but none in the U.S.
3) Heroin-Assisted Treatment (HAT)
Many countries also tackle drug-related problems by implementing heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) programs. Under HAT, pharmacological heroin is administered under strict controls in a clinical setting to those who have failed in other treatments.
Every published evaluation of HAT has shown extremely positive outcomes: major reductions in illicit drug use, crime, disease and overdose, and improvements in health, social reintegration and treatment retention.
Canada and more than a half dozen countries in Europe have heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) programs -- but there are none in the U.S., although the Nevada legislature is considering a pilot program.
Our country's mass incarceration and overdose crisis are finally getting the attention of elected officials -- including presidential candidates from both parties - who acknowledge these problems and the need for new approaches. But the proven, life-saving policies that could truly reduce the number of people behind bars, reduce the spread of HIV and overdose are not in most elected officials' or general public's vocabulary and consciousness.
We have to open our minds and learn the lessons from around the world as soon as possible. The cost of a slow learning curve is deadly.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)
This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog: http://www.drugpolicy.org/