Michael Moore’s "Where to Invade Next" Shows Why Drug Decriminalization Is Essential

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Feb 17 2016

Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” Shows Why Drug Decriminalization Is Essential

Michael Moore is a left-wing humanitarian documentary-maker who has tackled health care (Sicko), gun control (Bowling for Columbine), and inequality (Roger and Me). His latest, Where To Invade Next, simultaneously attacks America’s militarism and our lack of humanity.

Moore’s tongue-in-cheek premise is advocating the invasion of Italy, France, Iceland, Finland, Germany, Norway, Slovenia and Tunisia, in order to steal those countries’ enlightened policies. These include empowerment of women (Tunisia and Iceland); teaching good sex (France); free college (Slovenia) and health care (everywhere but here); civilized, healthy lunches, including in factories (Italy) and schools (France); free time for and engagement of workers (Italy and Germany); compassionate treatment of criminals (Norway); education geared towards independence, competence and happiness (Finland); and acceptance of responsibility for genocide and reparations for it (Germany).

Moore also invades Portugal to steal its drug decriminalization policy. No one has been arrested for drug use in Portugal for 15 years. The principal point Invade makes is that decriminalization requires an entirely different mindset from our own—beginning with our drug czar.

In fact, the essential difference in attitudes and policies towards drugs in Portugal and the US is embodied by our respective drug czars.

For Portugal’s chief drug policy officer, Nuno Capaz, drug use and addiction can’t be separated from comparable non-drug habits. Moore greets the man he calls the Portuguese drug czar by asking whether he is a drug user. Capaz answers that indeed he is: he drinks alcohol and coffee, uses the Internet, consumes sugar and … sometimes (skip a beat) … has sex.

In saying this, the Portuguese czar makes two points. He is not, as our drug czar (Michael Botticelli) is, in recovery. And he does not view drug use and addiction as special conditions different from other human habits and behaviors.

Later, when asked about the harm drug use causes, the Portuguese czar says that 90% of users don’t harm society. When Moore asks whether they might hurt themselves or their families, the czar answers, “What about Facebook users? Do they do that? Should we arrest them?” Indeed. Should Michael Moore be arrested for his unhealthy weight and eating habits?

In other words, banning drugs because some users form unhealthy relationships to them makes no sense—such potential problems don’t distinguish drugs from every other activity in which humans engage.

Underlying the decriminalization approach is a compassion that belies Sally Satel’s and Scott Lilienfeld’s plan for harnessing shame by arresting and imprisoning drug users in order to encourage recovery.  Three policemen speak to the camera in Invade to say that the most important element in Portuguese drug policy is to treat all people with dignity—including especially drug users.

Of course, as Capaz points out, drug users in Portugal have access to health care and addiction treatment (not in itself the antidote, but since no type of treatment is specified in the film it is a reasonable declaration). Meanwhile, the Portuguese drug czar says, drug use there has declined.

Our drug czar cannot imagine the possibility of decriminalizing, of normalizing, drug use, even though he himself was a controlled user of illicit drugs.

In this, and many other ways, Michael Botticelli is incapable of fulfilling his job’s demands by offering Americans a sane worldview on drug use and concomitant sane drug policies. Botticelli represents instead, with his recovery and zero-tolerance cant, an embarrassing symbol of our drug policy failures, not a solution for them.

It is by now clear what an advanced national drug policy/treatment system looks like. The essential elements include:

  1. Any system dealing with drugs will be based on harm reduction—that is, caring for and protecting drug users.

  2. Any such system, in order not to attack and alienate drug users, requires decriminalization of all private drug use.

  3. Prophylaxis for injecting users by the ready provision of clean syringes and/or safe places for injecting drugs, and some arrangement for provision of drugs, through commercial or public health sources.

  4. Respect and care for all people, including economic and social protections against poverty (a primary example of which is housing), provision of basic health care, and—as a part of the latter—access to a variety of options for drug therapies based on the user’s values, preferences, and willingness and ability to participate in treatment.

  5. Preparation of young people (which is essential, but not dealt with in Moore’s film) for a world of legal drugs and ample options for addictive habits, per the list of things mentioned by Capaz, Portugal’s thoughtful version of our silly drug czar.

Where To Invade Next is predicated on compassion and community. It is this kind of caring for your neighbor and fellow citizens and community involvement that allows all of the cultural advances Moore depicts—no better example of which is ceasing to arrest people who use drugs.

This may be the idea in the film most foreign to American eyes and ears.


Stanton Peele is a columnist for The Influence. He has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life. His website is Peele.net. Dr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance. You can follow him on Twitter: @speele5