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Ireland's New Drug Policies Should Be A Wake-Up Call For The U.S.

Could the same 'cultural shift' happen for us, too?

Irish officials announced on Tuesday (Nov. 3) some big-deal plans for the way they take on drug addiction -- by treating the people who use drugs as addicts instead of criminals.

The Irish Minister in charge of the National Drugs Strategy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin told The Irish Times that his plans would "decriminalise the possession of small amounts of drugs, including heroin, cocaine and cannabis" and instead focus on removing the stigma from drug addiction and getting the users treatment and support.

"I am firmly of the view that there needs to be a cultural shift in how we regard substance misuse if we are to break this cycle and make a serious attempt to tackle drug and alcohol addiction," Ríordáin told The Irish Times.

These are conversations we've been starting to have in the United States too, as more and more of the world refocuses their energy toward fighting the real root of drug problems: Addiction.

Addiction is a messy beast and everyone from drug advocates to President Obama have urged authorities to adopt more person-first policies that would focus on rehabilitating people who are struggling with drug use instead of throwing them in jail where their problems would likely get worse.

The New York Times reports that this reframing of drug conversations has a lot to do with the change in demographics that are affected: Now that the majority of new heroin users from the last decade (90 percent) are white, they say that there's been more people calling for sensitive, person-first legislation as opposed to the "War on Drugs" era rhetoric that refers to addicts as junkies and dehumanizes them.

"Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered," Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the New York Times. "They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation."

Though this says something obvious about the racial origins of the "War on Drugs" and larger issues with mass incarceration in our justice system, but it also helps cement the fact that a little more compassion and empathy might be the key to actually winning the war on addiction. Changing attitudes -- as well as our policies -- could ultimately save so many lives.