A social solution to a social problem

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While the Eurogroup ministers prepare to work through the night to try to reach a deal to paper over the cracks of the problems in the Eurozone, it’s time for a quick change of focus. Regular readers of this blog may have noticed my feeling that society is fundamentally misaligned with the needs of its people. Capitalism’s firm hold over the individual and collective psyche means that policies and actions are market-oriented, even in many cases where we might wish otherwise. I have discussed this to some extent elsewhere (see The Inner Class Divide) and have mentioned my belief that modern society lacks strong social institutions which can develop a sense of communal endeavour and belonging. Needs of individuals and communities which do not find themselves aligned with a market objective are often ignored or manhandled by the state.

I was pleased therefore to come across an article last week showing firm evidence of what can be achieved through social and community solutions. British journalist, Johann Hari has gained recognition for his work on the ‘war on drugs’ and has highlighted how Portugal has gained unprecedented success by turning to communities instead of the strong arm of the law. According to Hari,

“Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find—the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”

But isn’t this to some extent what we have always known? Sociologists, psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists have all made the case for a ‘social brain’. No matter how much big business may try to manipulate our needs, we still need each other to survive. Hari turns to Portugal for a specific example of how a community-based solution has delivered exceptional results:

Portugal “resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them—to their own feelings, and to the wider society.

The most crucial step is to get them secure housing, and subsidized jobs so they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. I watched as they are helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning them into silence with drugs.

One group of addicts were given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other, and to the society, and responsible for each other’s care.

The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. I’ll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. 

Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira, the country’s top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings that we would expect: more crime, more addicts. But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass—and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal’s example.”

Portugal’s success in combating drug addiction is no fluke or statistical anomaly. Social problems need social solutions.

Read Johann Hari’s article here.

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