As I’ve been seeing more of the world’s countries legalize drugs like cannabis, I can’t help but think about all the other addictive substances and behaviors people are already addicted to. I feel like legalizing less harmful drugs can be a good thing for other social reasons(especially harsh criminal sentencing), but substance abuse is still a very real issue that affects us. Even if you’re not actively using a substance, chances are you have a loved one or friend who has gone through some substance abuse issues.

I recently read this article on how Iceland is helping to stop substance abuse, and it blew my mind. A small team in Denver formed a program to give classes(music, dance, art, martial arts) and life-skills training to kids that had issues with drugs and petty crimes. They started with the idea that people can get addicted to anything related to behavior that changes your brain chemistry—not just the drugs we’re all told are addictive. It seems like a pretty simple way of thinking, but it’s surprising how many places around the world are resistant to that. Rather than using the unsuccessful methods of ‘drug education,’ this program started from asking what the kids actually wanted to learn.

The successful methods used in the Denver program eventually made their way to Iceland, where it helped form a national plan called ‘Youth in Iceland.’ It brought parents into the picture as well, including pledges like not buying alcohol for minors. And state funding was increased for sports and arts—encouraging group activity and giving kids another option of feeling good. They’ve been pretty great at keeping up their survey data as well. These positive results show some encouraging things:

Between 1997 and 2012, the percentage of kids aged 15 and 16 who reported often or almost always spending time with their parents on weekdays doubled – from 23 per cent to 46 per cent – and the percentage who participated in organised sports at least four times a week increased from 24 per cent to 42 per cent. Meanwhile, cigarette smoking, drinking and cannabis use in this age group plummeted.

Isn’t that what every drug abuse program would want? Definitely. After more positive data came back, other cities and nations soon tried implementing similar programs—but no other city has had the scale of effects seen in Iceland.

Reading about programs like this gives me hope for what’s possible in other parts of the world. But for other nations to adopt similar models, it will take time and some open minds. What Iceland has done takes quite a shift in thinking for many people—that successful prevention and/or recovery from substance abuse doesn’t depend solely on one person. To give them good alternatives, there has to be long-term funding and social support. It works best when it’s shared between friends, families, the public, and governments. That’s where the importance of their model lies—having a sense of responsibility for these conditions.


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