There are over 2 million people right now in the United States who are incarcerated. In 2008, the United States hit a record high with nearly 25% of the world’s 9.8 million prisoners. It would seem that our country has an inordinate number of people behind bars. Why?

One of the reasons is the way we handle drug use and addiction in this country.

What Denmark does 

Denmark criminalizes the “import, export, sale, purchase, delivery, receipt, production, processing and possession of drugs.” Distribution of particularly harmful drugs (such as heroin or cocaine) in areas where children and young people frequent is usually punished with a prison sentence. However, drug use (much like the Volstead Act) is not a crime. People who are charged with personal use and possession of drugs in Denmark typically will receive a fine, not a criminal conviction.

Instead of incarceration, punishment for drug possession and use in Denmark typically involves probationary measures or mandatory drug treatment. It is also possible, and has been since 2008 in Denmark, to obtain a medical prescription for heroin. Denmark also provides designated and regulated “drug consumption rooms.” This eliminates the need for users to commit crimes to obtain drugs and gives them a safe place to use them. Does this make Denmark more safe? Remarkably, the Institute for Economics and Peace ranks Denmark one of the 10 safest countries in the world in 2020.

Is treatment more effective than incarceration? 

Nearly half of those in United States prisons are drug dependent, according to the National Institutes of Health. Because the system is punitive, instead of restorative, many of these people will fail to receive the help they need to change.

Studies done by the Federal Bureau of Prisons show that by addressing the underlying problem of drug addiction first, strides to reduce crime are able to be made. In fact, a 2014 comprehensive report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that 84% of convicted criminals were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they committed the crime that put them in prison.

Underlying mental health and emotional issues such as affective disorders, anxiety disorders, and personality disorders can be at the root of drug use. So we have a progression of undiagnosed mental health conditions, which lead to drug use (as a self-medication) which correlates with criminal activity. If we offer offenders the assessment and treatment before, or possibly instead of incarceration, it stands to reason that this will have a positive impact on lowering crime and improving communities.