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Unique Ways Cities Across The Globe Are Handling The Drug War

Inmates playing chess in a prison

In August, the renowned New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an opinion piece about the pioneering step Seattle has taken regarding drug users: anyone caught with a small amount of drugs—even heroin—isn’t prosecuted. Instead, that person is steered toward social services to get help. Kristof characterizes it as “a partial retreat in the war on drugs coupled with a stepped-up campaign against addiction.”

The statistics he throws out are staggering. More than two million children live with a parent suffering from drug dependency on an illegal drug. Because of drug addiction, as many Americans have arrest records as have college degrees. An American is arrested for drug possession every 25 seconds. More American die every year from overdoses than died in Vietnam.

One man, the city’s prosecuting attorney, helped turn the city around after his younger sister became a severe drug user. She eventually got clean but died of a urinary track infection from her drug and alcohol use. He realizes that jail wouldn’t have helped her, but seems to think that support at the right time might have. (She did receive residential drug and alcohol treatment to get clean, but it sounds like it was too late.) The attorney became a bit of an activist because he wanted to get support from the public health system for other people.

While the idea sounds progressive, Kristof’s article got at least one negative letter to the editor, and one with questions. One Seattle resident said that the homeless camps around the city and “bedraggled hordes of dead-eyed addicts” mean that no one is making progress against the heroin epidemic. Another letter writer would like to know what is being done about addicts who haven’t been arrested and directed to social services?


Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001, and has “seen dramatic drops in overdoses, HIV infections, and related crime,” according to The Guardian. When people were summoned to court because they were caught with a small amount of drugs, Portugal gave them a warning or a small fine, or they were told to appear before a trio composed of a social worker, a lawyer, and a doctor, who would take it from there. It made a difference.

The results have continued through several changes of government. Drug use has been stable during the opioid crisis, but it hasn’t disappeared totally.

The U.K

I was in London and Edinburgh recently and saw people sitting on the sidewalk staring vacantly ahead, with signs about being homeless and needing money, as is the case in the U.S. 

But imagine my surprise when I read in a UK paper that when the police from at least one neighborhood there catch drug dealers, they text the dealer’s clients—middle class users—and tell them “the(ir) number is linked to ‘the supply of illegal drugs’.” I assume the purpose is to scare them from buying illegal drugs from anyone, knowing that they could be arrested during a drug transaction with another dealer.

A detective superintendent was quoted as saying that these specific drug dealers are “fueling the drug trade,” The fear is that children are being exploited–used to transport drugs from cities to rural areas. (The police have discovered that “at least 2,000 children in London are what we would call ‘drug runners’.” The dealers find children who are not attending school and entice the young people to work for them.

The exact wording of the text from the police to unsuspecting users is: “This is a message from Sussex police, working with partners to combat the supply of illegal drugs in the county. We have blocked a drug dealer’s telephone number from taking any more calls and the number we have texted has previously made contact with the line.”

Can you imagine this happening in the U.S? When police find it difficult to have Apple unlock phones in criminal cases to allow them access to evidence in criminal cases, would U.S. law enforcement really be able to send such a message with impunity? U.S residents would probably call it an invasion of privacy, at the very least.