This year, though, as I watched the fireworks and celebrated the freedoms of living in the U.S., my heart went out to all of those who are NOT free. As the flags waived, families enjoyed hot dogs on the grill and parades celebrated the red, white and blue, my thoughts went to those who are locked in our county jails and in our prisons for possessing a drug.
We all see the statistics – the United States now has more people behind bars than any other country in the world (25% of the prisoners with 5% of the population). One in every 31 adults – or one in every 18 men – in the U.S. is either incarcerated or on probation or parole. There are more black men in our criminal justice system than were slaves before the start of the Civil War. Most people have become aware that we have an issue, but it’s easy to look at statistics without really internalizing the impact on human lives. Much of the incarceration is due to drug possession tied to substance use disorder.
Science has now proven that addiction IS a treatable health condition. Based on consultations with more than 80 experts, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” Whether you agree with the definition as a disease or not, objective facts indicate that addiction is a medical condition – not a criminal one. While it’s true that addiction would not be possible if an individual never touched a drug, less than 20% of those who do use drugs become addicted. After drug use, when addiction is involved, brain scans show changes in the very parts of the brain that deal with decision-making, including the decision to ‘Just Say No’ to drugs. Additionally, medication-assisted treatment significantly decreases relapse rates. Medical treatment is effective, supporting the view that addiction is a medical condition as opposed to a moral failing that should be punished.
Politicians talk about what government can do to reduce the stigma of addiction and to promote treatment – and much lip service is given to the concept of treatment instead of punishment – yet we continue to lock people up and destroy lives over drug possession. Overdose is now the leading cause of death for those under age 50. Consider where our energies and discussions lie. OVERDOSE kills more people than car accidents, more than guns, and many more than terrorism. Might we want to reconsider our priorities and our focus?
If the punitive approach had worked, it might be worth sacrificing lives, but the result has been an escalating addiction and overdose epidemic that kills nearly 150 people a DAY in the United States, and 500 worldwide.
As we’re thinking about freedom and what it means, let’s TRULY consider the lives of those for whom freedom is just a memory.
Think about what it would really be like to sit in a cage, feeling forgotten by loved ones, and despised by society.
Think of the impact of knowing that, even when released, you’ll have a Scarlet letter – either F for Felon or C for Criminal – stuck to your forehead and in your online profile for all to see – forever – resulting in denied housing, jobs, and other opportunities. That stigma lasts forever.
Think of what it would be like to go to bed at night or to wake up in the morning on a thin cot, looking at bars, with no control over things impacting your life, and hoping that a hardened criminal won’t hurt you. Imagine worrying about whether you’ll receive your prescription drugs, or whether health care will be offered if you get sick. Consider NO control over the food you eat or your daily routine – regardless of whether chronic pain issues are exacerbated by diet and overall living conditions. Imagine wondering if anyone still cares.
Our drug policy doesn’t only hurt those who possess or use drugs. One in 14 children in the U.S. have had a parent in state or federal prison at some point in their lives. Imagine being a child, wondering why your Mom or Dad isn’t with you, worrying about growing up without them, or, ultimately following in their footsteps. And imagine that child in poverty because the parent isn’t allowed to be there for their child, or to financially support their family.
Think about what it’s like to be a parent, lying in bed every night, thinking of your child in this situation – because you either couldn’t find, or couldn’t afford, decent treatment for a substance use disorder that science has now proven IS a treatable health condition. Or imagine being that same parent who couldn’t afford to help to pay fines (or were told not to), only to see your son or daughter sent to jail simply because s/he was unable to pay the fines and court costs demanded by our system.
Put yourself in the position of that same parent getting a phone call from the jail, announcing that your child is calling – but being notified that you have two minutes to insert your credit card to pay required fees. And imagine being the parent who can’t find – or doesn’t have – a credit card or the funds to pay to talk to their child. Consider that the call just might be to let you know about a health emergency that is being ignored.
You could be the parent whose son or daughter is in prison and receives a call from a gang member to extort funds, telling you that, if you don’t pay, your child will die at the hands of one of their gang members with access to your child in prison.
You could be the parent whose child goes through withdrawal behind bars, with no medical help and no emotional support.
Or perhaps your child is simply in the county jail for a short time, but you see the transition in identity from innocent kid experimenting with drugs to a ‘criminal’, housed with those incarcerated for serious, violent crimes who are held in the jail before being admitted to prison. You could be the parent whose child is in county jail for a year – never seeing the sun or going outside. Envision your emotional state sitting in front of a grainy video screen – the only ‘contact’ with your child, where the audio may or may not work, and where staff treat you like a second-class citizen. Imagine being sick to your stomach every time you approach the jail.
And this misery is – for what? Often, an inmate is there because s/he smoked a joint or took a pill. Drug addiction is a very real and significant problem, but even for the most seasoned heroin user, this pain – for them and for their families, has only exacerbated the addiction and overdose epidemic. We have criminal sanctions for burglary, assault, and other actions that harm third parties. Drug possession statutes are not required to prosecute when a victim is harmed. The ‘crime’ of drug possession is because someone possessed a substance. If they’re addicted to drugs, they need help – not punishment.
Incarcerating one prisoner costs taxpayers an average of just under $32,000/yr as of 2015 (the most recent statistics available), compared to an average cost of $26,082 for full residential treatment in 2015. In most cases, full residential treatment is not required. With use of medication-assisted treatment and evidence-based outpatient treatment, costs of treatment have been reduced, and success rates have significantly improved – for those who can get it. Amazingly, the cost of a year in a California prison is higher than the cost of a year at Harvard.
If we converted drug policy to one of medical treatment vs. criminal prosecution, we could afford to provide treatment for every person who needs it. The United Nations and the World Health Organization agree. They just issued a call for all drugs to be decriminalized, included in their joint statement on ending healthcare discrimination which called for “reviewing and repealing punitive laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes”. The report states that laws that should be repealed include “drug use or possession of drugs for personal use”. Drug decriminalization has also been endorsed by the American Public Health Association and the International Red Cross. In Portugal and in other countries that have decriminalized, drug use, overdose and HIV rates have declined significantly.
Science has now proven that addiction is caused by trauma and isolation, and is often accompanied by either chronic physical pain or co-existing mental health issues. All of these symptoms are put on steroids with our current ‘solution’ to the problem.
Let’s be honest about our War on Drugs. When we make a drug illegal, we are saying ‘Lock them up.’ When we make a medical condition a crime, we are putting the legal system – rather than medical professionals – in charge of diagnosing and ‘treating’ that condition. That policy explains why people have died after courts have required termination of medications that are medically recommended, or why those already IN successful recovery have their success jeopardized by being locked up long after an ‘offense’ took place, due to delays within the legal system. We wonder what new government strategy can be used to deal with the addiction and overdose crisis. Politicians ask how they can help to stop the stigma of addiction? Let’s begin by stopping the stigma created by making this health issue a crime. Before government can do anything to ‘solve’ the problem, government needs to stop CAUSING the problem.
Isn’t it time that as taxpayers, in a supposedly free country, we say ‘ENOUGH’, and begin treating substance use disorder as the health issue that it is – as defined by multiple agencies of the same government that makes addiction a crime? We can spend billions more persecuting people, locking them up and ruining lives, only to leave them more desperate and damaged than before. Or – we can use those funds for the medications and the evidence-based treatments that have been proven to be successful in many cases. Success rates would likely increase even more if stigma was reduced and opportunity expanded, simply by removing criminal penalties from the equation.
We’re wasting taxpayer money and destroying lives. And for what?
- So our law enforcement officers can be put at risk?
- To cause citizens to be uncooperative in solving real crime because they’re afraid of police?
- To make it more difficult for law enforcement to deal with true criminals?
- So burglary, rape and murder can go unsolved?
- So we can add to the trillion + dollars in taxpayer money already spent to fill our prisons and create the greatest overdose epidemic in history – while having no funding for treatment of a TREATABLE health issue?
We’re wasting taxpayer money and destroying lives. And for what? As we live our lives, and remember 4th of July fireworks and celebrations of freedom, may we realize that many, in this ‘land of the free’, are NOT free, and suffer at the hands of a dysfunctional government and laws promoted out of ignorance, fear and hatred. May we all remember that it could be us, or it could be our son or daughter.
It’s time to stop the carnage. It’s time to end the War on Drugs.
For information on treating addiction and resources for parents of sons and daughters struggling with substance use disorder or dealing with the criminal justice system, visit www.SurviveYourChildsAddiction.com. To book speaking engagements or to request articles on this topic for your publication, contact us at email@example.com.