Paolo Guerrero, Roman Eremenko and professional football’s backwards fight against recreational drugs

Paolo Guerrero, Roman Eremenko and professional football’s backwards fight against recreational drugs

In 1998, The Onion issued their famous “Drugs Win Drug War” headline to commemorate the United States’ 30-plus year fight against recreational narcotics. Although satirical in nature, it was an accurate description of the Drug War’s total failure in the country.

Today, the US’s zero-tolerance policy stands as a trillion dollar waste of resources that has done nothing to combat drug addiction, instead imprisoning millions of low-income people of colour, scaremongering the population, destabilising South and Central American governments, and transforming the public’s idea of addiction into a taboo, rather than the legitimate disease that it is. In short, even with all of the resources, heavy-handed rhetoric and state-sponsored propaganda that only the United States can truly muster, a hard-line approach towards combatting drug addiction does not work. 

While the United States was unsuccessfully waging its war against drugs, Portugal was tackling the same issue in a different manner. Instead of criminalising users, the traditionally conservative country decided to enact new policies to help them. The program is premised on the belief that addiction is a valid, medical issue, and relies primarily on the following three ideas.

First, there is no such thing as different levels of drugs, only healthy and unhealthy relationships with them; second, an individual’s relationship with drugs often conceals troubled relationships with themselves, others, and the world around them; and third, the eradication of all drugs is an impossible goal. 

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Through these pillars, Portugal established a system that responded to drug use with administrative sanctions rather than criminal punishment, referring users to local panels called Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction. Each CDT is composed of a social worker, a treatment professional and a lawyer. These commissions take a holistic approach to drug use that examine addiction patterns, mental health history, schooling and employment, identifying needs in order to refer people to services. Since the program’s establishment in 2001, the country has seen a 75 percent drop in drug cases, a decrease in use among adolescents, and over a 90 percent drop in drug-related HIV infections. 

Today, Portugal’s health-based initiative is hailed as a model for the rest of the world. Recently, the World Health Organization and American Public Health Association have both advocated for more countries to follow in Portugal’s lead, which begs the question, why haven’t they? While it might be overly simplistic to say that drug-related fear-mongering is too effective a strategy in mobilising public support to simply fall away, it’s undoubtedly easier to dismiss users as criminals rather than to actually think critically and with compassion. 

This is all a bit of a roundabout way to discuss football and FIFA, but it’s put into recent context with the World Cup’s Paolo Guerrero debacle, and the final month of Roman Eremenko’s two-year ban for cocaine. To preface this argument, I want to make it clear that I’m not dismissing the dangerous effects of recreational drugs. They can wreck an athlete’s health and family, while the trade itself has the potential to damage entire communities. That’s not the point. The real question is why FIFA – an athletic governing body – is suspending recreational drug takers like Emerenko, and in the past Adrian Mutu and Jake Livermore as criminals/cheaters, rather than what they truly are, which is drug users.

Cocaine is not a performance-enhancing substance. The fact that FIFA classifies it in the same note as anabolic steroids and EPO makes little sense from a scientific standpoint. Did Guerrero become a better player from sipping the wrong tea? Of course not. Does Eremenko, who was convicted of smoking cocaine, deserve a longer ban than Abel Xavier, a steroid user? No. It’s idiotic to even suggest as much.

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The British Journal of Sports Medicine backed this assertion in 2006, when they wrote: “Despite the popular myth … cocaine does not really enhance performance… in particular, several studies have shown that cocaine has no beneficial effect on running times and reduces endurance performance.” Although FIFA might believe that it looks good to a generally uninformed public to proclaim that they are tough on drugs, in reality, it’s clearly a bad look for a national governing body to use someone’s well-being as their own public relations boon.

Like Portugal, the WHO and APH have established that recreational drug usage needs to be seen only as a health issue, not a question of criminality/cheating. In making it the latter, FIFA only furthers the harmful rhetoric that stigmatises drug users solely as villains. The hardline stance of banning an athlete from their professional duties is not an effective way to prevent them from using drugs in the future. In fact, as the United States has demonstrated for almost a half-century, it will almost always have the opposite effect.

If the organisation truly pretended to care about footballers, their families and careers, they’d take the research-backed route to help athletes find the much-needed balance proven to minimise harm in their own lives. Coupled with FIFA’s inability to govern on any other front, all that the yearlong-plus drug bans serve to do is frame each non-existent punishment that the organisation issues for overt racism, homophobia and sexual harassment in an even worse light than before.  

As Portuguese doctor and drug treatment specialist Álvaro Pereira states: “Being alive can be very complicated.” The pressures of being an elite footballer don’t make it any easier. With all of the available evidence out there, its time for FIFA to cease banning athletes for the sole purpose of enforcing harmful, prevailing norms, and instead help professionals get the aid that they might need. The Drug War is over. Drugs won. Let’s learn to start living sustainably with them.

By Ryan Huettel @ryanhuettel2

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