“The War on Drugs” was a failure and, despite all of the efforts to end it, the opioid crisis has merely changed form instead of going away. In the meantime, the prisons are full of people who developed addictions they couldn’t control.
Maybe it’s time that addiction was treated like the disease it is, instead of being treated as an active choice deserving of punishment.
Addiction is a medical condition, not a moral failing
It’s been well-understood for a while now that addiction is a complex issue and a brain disorder, not a character flaw. Yet, the criminal justice system seems determined to punish drug users more fiercely than ever – and often unfairly. For example, studies have shown that:
- White and Black people use the same kind of drugs at about the same rates, but Black people are more than four times as likely to be arrested for the possession of certain drugs than Whites.
- Black and Latino people make up only about one-fourth of the U.S. population, but more than half the people incarcerated for drug offenses are people of color.
- It can be very difficult for addicts to obtain proper treatment, particularly if they’re a person of color. Black addicts routinely are given less help for their conditions than Whites and may have to wait years longer to even find a program.
So, enforcement related to drug possession and use is racial and unfair, access to treatment for drug addiction is uneven and addicts continue to be treated as if they are merely lacking in willpower. Why else shouldn’t addicts be punished when they’re caught in possession of drugs?
Punishment really does not work, and it could make things worse
The short answer is that warehousing addicts in prisons for a while doesn’t do anything to combat their addictions, and it could make them worse. Studies indicate that about half of those incarcerated have untreated addictions – and those often stay untreated when they’re in jail.
Once they return to the streets, their time in jail can make it even harder for former prisoners to beat their addictions since they often find it more difficult to obtain housing, employment, higher education and access to the social services they need for some kind of stabilizing influence in their lives. Recidivism is common (and likely to remain so without treatment), which can create a vicious cycle of incarceration.
If your teen or young adult child has been arrested for drug possession or impaired driving and addiction is an issue, remember that treatment – not punishment – is what they really need. Seeking legal guidance can help.