APIA, Samoa, Mar 08 (IPS) – In the February 12th editorial on the issue of illicit drug use, the Samoa Observer stated that “… there is no data currently available to show that drug abuse including meth consumption levels in Samoa have reached crisis levels, which would warrant the government considering decriminalizing drug use and consumption.”
The United Nation’s position on this is clear, we must not sit by and wait for a problem to blight our communities before acting. The evidence shows that it is cheaper and more effective to prevent drug use than to deal with the consequences. To be clear, my concerns are for the drug users and their families and not for the criminal dealers.
Addiction is a disease, not a crime. People can be addicted to many substances; alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, and sugar to name a few. Studies indicate that, due to the dopamine release that occurs when it is consumed, sugar can be as addictive as cocaine. Many people can eat and enjoy a sweet without becoming addicted, but those that do are in danger of serious health issues. Worse, they instill the addiction in their children. Sugar is a largely untreated addiction common in Pacific countries, including Samoa.
Alcohol addiction is also a well-known. As with sugar, most people can enjoy alcohol without it controlling their life or causing a problem for the community. If a person commits a crime while under the influence of alcohol, they should be prosecuted for that crime. But if a person is at home and harms no one while drunk, is that person a criminal? No. If a person needs to get drunk all the time, that person needs help. That is why we support more referrals and more programmes to help people overcome alcohol addiction.
The United States infamously learned a harsh lesson between 1920 and 1933 when it imposed a prohibition on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcohol. This did not however reduce demand for it. Instead, the 18th Amendment created a large-scale and violent criminal underground of people prepared to supply it. Unfortunately, that lesson was forgotten when it came to dealing with drug use. If the people in the US no longer craved illegal drugs there would be no billion dollar illegal drug industry. No matter how much contraband is seized and how many drug dealers are put in jail, more drugs are produced and more people fill the ranks of dealers.
According to the “Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition),” written by the US National Institute of Health “Substance abuse costs our Nation over $600 billion annually and treatment can help reduce these costs. Drug addiction treatment has been shown to reduce associated health and social costs by far more than the cost of the treatment itself.” The financial cost of incarcerating someone is enormous compared to the cost of running effective drug treatment programmes. But more importantly, we have a duty to not give up on people struggling with addiction. We should seek to rehabilitate addicts, in the hope that they can become valuable members of the community.
Methamphetamine and heroin are examples of destructive drugs that have serious side effects and should have no place in Samoa, or anywhere. People who succumb to these drugs need to be treated immediately. If threatened with a jail sentence, why would they step forward? Illegal gun owners get amnesty, but the unfortunate person who turned to drugs goes to jail. If a person who was prescribed opioids for post-surgical pain management becomes addicted, is that person a criminal? No, and treating them as criminals is unjust.
Yes, there is a difference: alcohol, cigarettes and sugar are legal and other drugs are not. The issue is that people know overuse of these legal drugs can be harmful, yet they still abuse them. If we can turn around one user and prevent others from trying drugs, it is worth the effort. Drug use, whether legal or illegal, is a pandemic that needs to be confronted with proper evidence-based prevention strategies – and prompt social responses that address the root causes.
The author is Resident Coordinator: UN Multi Country Office for Cook Islands Niue Samoa and Tokelau
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