How Some Countries are Cracking Down on Addiction

Holding hand of the drug addict.

At this time, the United States is in the midst of an opioid addiction epidemic the likes of which it has never seen before. For almost twenty years, our nation has experienced a gradually increasing trend in opioid addiction, thanks in part to a compounded introduction and increase in opioid pain reliever pharmaceuticals and a resurgence in heroin trafficking and abuse.

Let’s look at some of the numbers on this. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are currently twenty-four million Americans who are addicted to drugs and alcohol across the United States. A number this significant represents about fourteen percent of the U.S. adult and adolescent population. And of those twenty-four million, it is thought that the majority of them have either tried opioids or are currently misusing opioids.

And this just represents the sheer number of people who have fallen prey to an addictive habit. Imagine now, with overdose statistics being as high as they are, the sheer death toll in America because of drugs and alcohol. It is quite significant. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sixty-four-thousand, nine-hundred people died from drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning in 2016, and numbers for 2017 have not even been fully tabulated yet.

But the CDC has determined that drug and alcohol addiction is now so prominent across America that substance abuse, in general, is the single leading cause of injury-related death and accident-related death. And substance abuse is the third leading cause of preventable death, behind only smoking and obesity.

A problem of this order of magnitude is certainly one that deserves our full attention and efforts in its resolution. But it often feels like, no matter what we do to address and resolve the 21st-century addiction epidemic, it always feels like the problem gets worse, not better. So let’s look to other countries who have successfully addressed their addiction problems, and see if we can learn from their strategies.

The United States Has a Very Unique Problem

Right off the bat, we have to remind ourselves that the United States is in a unique predicament. No other country’s addiction problem is quite like ours. The American people comprise only five percent of the world’s population, yet we consume more than seventy-five percent of the world’s supply of pharmaceuticals every year. And these are pharmaceuticals that can be highly addictive too.

The United States has one of the best healthcare systems in the world, yet we barely make the list of top twenty countries on the planet for life expectancy. And the United States has a phenomenal educational system too, yet young people across America still opt for drugs and alcohol with growing prevalence, even though they should know better not to. So it is safe to say that the United States is in a very unique crisis, though that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn a thing or two from how other countries have been successful in addressing their own drug problems.

Iceland and After School Programs

Kids paying soccer after school

The island-state of Iceland is one that does not make headlines often. We don’t hear about this country in the news much, mainly because the media organizations do not have much fodder for distress or unpleasant occurrences to report on when it comes to Iceland. (Fascinating how the majority of what the news deigns to report on is only unpleasant occurrences and events). Iceland is so often off our radar due to the rare occurrence of anything truly unpleasant in this nation.

So how do they do it? A United Nations study recently discovered that Iceland has the lowest young adult and teen substance abuse rate in all of Europe. Incredible. This may be the key to why crime rates and socio-economic difficulties have been so few and far between in the nation. The island nation takes responsibility for the well-being of their youth at a very young age, ensuring that their adolescents, teens, and young adults are put on the right path when they are young.

Iceland has been able to reduce their substance abuse rates to unprecedented lows by making after-school programs for youth of all ages a mandatory requirement for graduation. This approach keeps young people off of the streets, out of trouble, and away from situations that might involve peer pressure or drug use. Furthermore, Icelandic families are encouraged to engage in interactive family activities that involve the children, regardless of their age.

Iceland has shown that the salvation and improvement of a society depend significantly on the proper upbringing of the youth of that society. While we might not be able to mimic Iceland’s strategies exactly, we can absolutely utilize their principles in our efforts to resolve our own young adult substance abuse condition.

Canada and “Treatment First”

Canadian doctor checking patient

Our neighbors to the North are pursuing a path of decriminalization of drugs, which is not a wise decision by any means. A society that allows drugs is a society that will devolve down the dwindling spiral of degradation. However, Canada is doing something very correct, something that our nation could learn from. Canada almost always sends Canadian drug addicts to drug and alcohol addiction treatment centers, not jail cells. This is something that the Canadian governments are very adamant about, and something that we could all learn from.

In the United States, our nation pendulum-swings back and forth constantly on whether or not to approach drug addicts with an insistence on treatment or an insistence on incarceration. Just recently, in fact, our nation seesawed from a pro-treatment stance under the Obama Administration to a pro-incarceration stance under the Trump Administration. Without getting political at all, it becomes next to impossible to address a society’s drug problem when we constantly swing from one approach to another.

We should take a page out of Canada’s book in the form of treatment as being the primary approach to addiction, not incarceration. Drug addicts and alcoholics do not get better when we simply throw them in jail cells and forget about them.

Change is Necessary

For the last twenty years, the drug and alcohol addiction scene has gotten progressively worse across the United States. This is a problem that seems to only become more harmful. If we do not change or alter our approach to the problem, it will likely become far more dangerous.

It is time that we look outwards in an effort to revolutionize our approach to drug addiction. Better care and attention to our youth, better after-school programs, more of a family-oriented focus to our kids’ upbringing, and a treatment-first approach to addicts for those who still become addicted are all strategies that have worked in other countries that we could absolutely implement here.

Drug addiction and alcoholism are without a doubt one of the most terrible and unpleasant afflictions to beset a society. The United States is stricken with this more so now than perhaps ever before in our history. We can resolve this condition and overcome it, absolutely, but it will take drastic effort and levels of commitment on the part of Americans everywhere to do so. It is a worthwhile mission.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.