07/11/2014 02:08 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

How Competing World Cup Nations Champion Drug Policy Reform

The FIFA World Cup presents an opportunity for journalists and activists from the competing nations to bring international attention to issues in their countries. As an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance, I want to seize this occasion to appreciate the progress some of this year's competing nations have made on drug policy reform.

Harm Reduction

Many of the World Cup competitor nations have developed harm reduction programs to tackle problematic drug use. Harm reduction is an intelligent and compassionate response to the reality that a drug free society is an impossibility. These programs help drug consumers use drugs as safely as possible, reducing the risk of injury, disease, and overdose. One of the most popular harm reduction methods used in several of these nations are syringe exchange programs, which work to reduce the spread of blood-transmitted diseases -- such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C--by allowing users to exchange their used syringes for new ones. The exchange also reduces the likelihood of dirty needles being left on the street, protecting police officers and the public from exposure.

Two early examples are the Netherlands and Switzerland where syringe exchange programs have been very successful. In the early 1980s, the Netherlands established the world's first syringe exchange program, and Switzerland established the first in prisons in 1992. According to a 2007 report by the Harm Reduction Coalition, after the program was implemented in the prisons there were no new known cases of HIV or Hepatitis C.

Decriminalization and Legalization

Incarceration is an in humane, ineffective, and enormously expensive response to illicit drugs. As prohibition efforts continue to fail, the public and political leaders are viewing decriminalization and legalization as better options.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the use and possession of all drugs, joining Uruguay, which had done so in 1974. It exchanged criminal penalties for administrative sanctions, potentially resulting in a fine or addiction treatment. Since the law's enforcement, there has been no significant increase in drug use, but there has been a sixty percent reduction in the number of people arrested for drug use or possession, more people in treatment, and markedly decreased rates of HIV and Hepatitis C among injecting drug users.

Colorado became the world's first jurisdiction to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2012. In June, the state celebrated its six-month anniversary of the opening of the first dispensary for recreational marijuana, and the results have been largely positive. Violent crime in Denver is down by 5.2% from the same time last year. Tax revenue from marijuana sales totaled $10.8 million, and thousands have not been arrested for marijuana, are without criminal records, and will not face discrimination for that reason when they apply for housing, jobs, and higher education. Washington State also legalized the recreational use of marijuana the same year. The sale of marijuana there began on July 8, 2014.

In December 2013, Uruguay made headlines for becoming the first country to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana--a major accomplishment.

Potential for Change

The War on Drugs in Latin America has been a violent campaign. With no real success, a few political leaders are considering taking more progressive approaches.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, for example, has spoken out about the potential for legalizing cocaine--the drug he feels most affects his nation. Legalization would be a major step toward ending the region's violent illicit drug trafficking business. Santos also aided in proposing a United Nations review of drug policy, which will take place in 2016. He continues to champion international discussion on the topic.

Similarly, Mexico represents the promise that can emerge when leaders accept that the War on Drugs has failed miserably. Since 2006, when President Felipe Calderon began his own war, reports estimate that 60,000 to 100,000 people have been killed in relation to prohibition efforts. Faced with this reality, in February, Mexico proposed two bills: one to decriminalize drugs and another to establish a medical marijuana program.

Although none of the nations listed above have a chance at winning the World Cup this year, they all have the opportunity to and have taken steps toward winning against the War on Drugs -- to create safer, healthier, smarter, and more just societies. That is a victory worth celebrating worldwide.

Jelani Hayes is an intern in the media department at the Drug Policy Alliance and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania.

This first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.