Putting nonviolent drug addicts in jail isn't helping. As heroin use and overdose rises across the US to the levels of an epidemic, it's time we reassess the way drug use and abuse is handled in this country.
The problem isn't just about drugs. Drug use perpetuates other problems, including burglary and acts of violence that help addicts secure drugs. And the solution isn't just about punishment; it is also about implementing a long-term plan that will permanently cut down drug use and, in turn, the incidence of robbery and drug-related violence.
The effort is off to a solid start with one small town in Massachusetts deciding to “attack the demand rather than the supply.” On May 4, Gloucester police chief Leonard Campanello declared via a Facebook post that any opiate addict who comes to the police station will be given assistance rather than a jail cell.
He promised to assign an “angel” to each addict who chooses to enter the station, and has involved Addison Gilbert Hospital and Lahey Clinic to help provide adequate care and treatment. He has also pledged that Nasal Narcan, which reverses heroin overdoses, will be available at nearby pharmacies to be paid for by the police department using “money seized from drug dealers.”
What We Think We Know About Drug Use
This approach to drug use underscores the idea that drug addicts are suffering from a disease rather than criminality. Campanello told Boston.com, “opiate addicts are suffering the same disease as those addicted to cigarettes,” a crucial point that illustrates the stigma associated with drug use.
It's this stigma that seems to have prevented any kind of adequate response to America's drug problem so far. In 2008, in spite of so-called “tough anti-drug laws,” a World Health Organization survey found that the US had the “highest level of illegal drug use in the world.”
The study also found that countries with more liberal drug policies did not have higher levels of drug use, indicating that stringent policies may not make a world of difference. In light of this information, the idea of punishing those in need of treatment appears out of touch with reality and out of sync with what drug addicts actually respond to.
The War on Drugs as a Public Health Battle
Forty years ago, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” This rhetoric framed the drug problem as a good versus evil battle, with a punitive solution. But saying that drug addicts should be punished is like saying individuals with eating disorders should just be force-fed hamburgers.
Jail provides a temporary solution that keeps the problem at bay. It does not respond to the larger issues that will keep an addict from going back to the pill or needle.
According to the website for the National Institute of Health's National Institute on Drug Abuse,
Treatment offers the best alternative for interrupting the drug use/criminal justice cycle for offenders with drug problems.
Their analysis goes on to say that,
Treatment can help individuals… change attitudes, beliefs and behaviors; avoid relapse; and successfully remove themselves from a life of substance abuse and crime.
While the analysis focuses largely on treatment programs within prison, the success of treatment solutions in general still stands.
However, taking jail out of the equation could certainly help. If individuals were told they would not be punished, but would instead simply receive treatment, it's more likely they would choose to come into a police station and ask for assistance.
For those unconvinced by the treatment option, there's also a fiscal gain to acknowledge. Research by the journal Crime & Delinquency found,
If just 10 percent of eligible offenders were treated in community-based programs instead of going to prison, the criminal justice system would save $4.8 billion.
Decriminalization as a Solution to Crime
In 2000, Portugal “had one of the worst problems in Europe with drugs,” according to British writer Johann Hari, author of "Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs."
One percent of the population was addicted to heroin at this time, and the response remained the same as our country's: Put the drug users in prison. Then Portugal decriminalized all drugs. No prison, no punishment for the problem. Instead, users and abusers received treatment for their addictions. Portugal saw drug use decline by 50 percent.
Portugal's President of the Institute of Drugs and Drug Addiction saw this dramatic change as the result of a multi-faceted approach. It was not just a product of decriminalization, he noted, but “a confluence of treatment and risk reduction policies.”
Decriminalization, implemented in conjunction with treatment programs, may just provide the kind of solution we are looking for.
So do we decriminalize drugs? Maybe, but this would likely stem from long political battles and come to fruition years from now. In the short term, the essential element is treatment without punishment. It's about inspiring people to pursue help without fear, to find an actual solution to their problem.
That's why Gloucester's new policy may just work. By providing drug treatment for those who want it, this American city may prove there is a way to battle drug use without waging war.
If successful, it could serve as an example for other cities to follow suit, setting a precedent for changing our rhetoric around drugs and the way we look at a problem of epic proportions. After all, it's time we see drug addicts as people who need help, drug use as a health issue rather than a crime, and rehab as a way to help better society.
Citations: Gloucester Police Department Official (Facebook), US Leads the World in Illegal Drug Use (CBS News), Drug Use Crime and Incarceration (National Institute on Drug Abuse), Choosing Substance Abuse Treatment Over Prison Could Save Billions Study (Partnership for Drug Free Kids), What The US Can Learn From Portugal About Decriminalizing Drugs (The Huffington Post), Ten Years After Decriminalization Drug Abuse Down by Half in Portugal (Forbes)