How do other cultures deal with addiction, and what can we learn from them?

How do other cultures deal with addiction, and what can we learn from them?

How the United States deals with addiction is a hotly debated subject—with strong opinions on completely different ends of the spectrum—but how does the rest of the world deal with it? Which countries are more successful than others in keeping drug and alcohol abuse rates low? Are their methods for doing so ones we’d like to emulate? Let’s dig into the issue a little.

Portugal gained attention for decriminalizing drugs in 2001—the first European Union member state to do so. According to some reports, it’s been a tremendous success. Part of the reason they turned to this approach is because they saw that imprisoning people who did drugs simply wasn’t working in terms of reducing the numbers of those who did drugs. Critics usually say that when you decriminalize drugs, abuse becomes rampant and drug abusers all but ruin society, but the Portuguese say that just didn’t happen. Instead, they are now able to manage drug-related problems much more effectively, and substance use rates are dramatically lower.

Singapore, on the other hand, is known for some of the toughest drugs laws in the world. For even smaller infractions, the penalties can be as strict as 10 years in jail, fines of as much as $20,000—or both. They also assume that if you possess a drug, you’re trafficking it. This carries a death sentence if you possess:

  • 15 grams or more of heroin.
  • 30 grams or more of cocaine.
  • 200 grams or more of hashish.
  • 500 grams or more of cannabis.
  • 1200 grams or more of opium.

Drug and alcohol use is Singapore is (unsurprisingly) one of the lowest in the world, but it’s highly doubtful that anyone in the United States would advocate for such a standard.

Using a completely different approach, Iceland now boasts some of the lowest rates of teen drug abuse thanks to country-wide initiative to turn around what was becoming a significant problem with the country’s youth. Looking at the underlying reasons most people abuse drugs—they want to change their brain chemistry to either avoid or confront a problem—they figured out more positive ways for kids to do that.

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After getting referrals from teachers or school counselors for at-risk teens, the organizers told them they’d teach the kids whatever they wanted to learn—from hip hop to martial arts. This stimulated their interest and satisfied their need for novelty. It also provided them a place to go during prime drug-abusing hours, and taught them life skills and positive coping mechanisms. In the time since they’ve implemented the program, teen drug and alcohol experimentation and abuse has plummeted and kids (and their families) are happier than ever.

Given the objective failure of our country’s so-called “War on Drugs,” it stands to reason that we could learn something from those who seem to be doing it right—and humanely.


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