Three Countries’ Strategies on Drug Policies and Poverty


SEATTLE, Washington — People have been trying to escape reality for as long as humans have walked on two legs. Terrence Mckenna’s Stoned Ape theory posits that the catalyst for our brains forming neural pathways necessary for language was when a primate ancestor consumed a form of hallucinogenic mushroom. Tribal cultures have long used potent hallucinogens in religious ceremonies. However, in modern times, the cultural view of these chemicals is not nearly as open-minded. Many modern developed nations deal with drug abuse by punishing rather than treating. Due to the punishment-over-treatment method, the groups most affected are consistently those that are poorest. In some cases, drug policies and poverty have a reciprocal relationship where policies can help individuals escape poverty. Some drug policies have an inverse relationship with impoverished populations, punishing users while pushing them further down the slope of poverty.

Drug liberalization policies have long been a divisive topic. Yet, drug policies and poverty have been intertwined since the inception of drug policies. Across the globe, a number of developed countries have implemented a system of social assistance programs. These programs provide users with the resources necessary to improve their quality of life on a day to day basis. On the other hand, the punitive drug policies of some countries may result in the temporary or permanent suspension of personal liberties. Here is an examination of countries with treatment based drug policies versus countries with punitive drug policies.

United States of America

One of the first countries to consider is the United States. The U.S. continues to enforce strict laws and regulations surrounding scheduled substances. These laws can, among other things, negatively impact an individual’s ability to obtain federal loans for college or other forms of financial assistance like grants. In many cases, federal loans and grants may be the reasons that kids from impoverished communities can stay in school. Even though a handful of states have decriminalized, legalized and regulated things like marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms, they remain illegal under federal law. These substances can land an individual behind bars simply for possession of a substance. The U.S. is certainly not the country with the harshest punishments in terms of drug policies. However, the United States’ system of punishment disproportionally affects the poor and minority communities.

Although the United States is one of the richest countries in the world, it has a poverty rate of 11.8%. Much of this high poverty rate can be attributed to the connection between drug policies and poverty. This is especially true with a system that treats even small-time offenders as harshly as repeat offenders. They often place addicts in jail with no form of rehabilitation or harm reduction program. Then the government removes their ability to remain financially stable, attend university and participate in the democratic process.


In the late ’90s, Portugal had one of the worst heroin epidemics the world had ever seen. At one point, approximately 1% of Portugal’s population was reportedly addicted to hard drugs. In response to the number of Portuguese citizens reliant on substances, the government completely decriminalized drug possession and use. It also removed jail time as a possible punishment unless the individual was convicted of severe drug trafficking charges. Following the decriminalization changes to Portugal’s drug policies, the country experienced a rapid decline in drug use for two of the largest problem groups: young users and problematic repeat users.

Since drug decriminalization in Portugal, the nation has experienced a trend of shrinking poverty. In 2017, 1.9% of the total Portuguese population was living under the poverty line of less than $5.50/day.

The Netherlands

The Netherlands has been leading the globe in the pursuit of developing more humane drug policies. The government of the Netherlands never fully federally decriminalized drug possession. However, in 1976, the Netherlands moved cannabis possession to the lowest priority for law enforcement. They also put into place non-punitive drug policies.

Some might assume that having an extremely lax view on drugs would lead to rampant drug use and overdoses in the Netherlands. Numerous studies looked for an increase in drug usage after the Netherlands allowed “coffee shops” to sell cannabis. Even so, only one study showed an increase in drug usage from 1986-1994. The increase in drug use could only be observed for cannabis use and has since been attributed to the opening of coffee shops.

The Netherlands has long since held one of the lowest poverty percentages in Europe, with the fifth-lowest rate in all of the European Union. Currently, the Netherlands reports only 2.6% of the population lives in severe financial poverty.

In the war on drugs, the people most affected are not the individuals or organizations supplying the substance. Instead, this war impacts the poorest users disproportionately because of the connection between drug policies and poverty. However, countries can use the relationship between drug policies and poverty to help people out of impoverishment by focusing on drug policy reform. The Netherlands, for example, proves it is possible to legislate a system of rehabilitation and support without seeing a spike in usage or overdoses. One can also extrapolate that one reason for the lower poverty rates in countries with more liberalized drug policies is because of the removal of financial punishment or restriction of liberties due to possession of a controlled substance. Removing these factors from the list of struggles poverty already provides can improve any family’s chance of rising above poverty.

Craig Bahnsen
Photo: Flickr


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