OPINON: It’s time to start treating addiction as a health issue, not a moral failure

Via UnSplash.

Drug addiction is one of the first things that comes to mind when people think of crime and deviance, but that ignores the significant amount of evidence that lack of proper social and justice system programs cause it.

According to Pew Trusts, about two-thirds of incarcerated people in America are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Few receive treatment for their addictions while in jail and upon release they are thrown back into the same environment they were using drugs in. Now, they have the added stigma of being formerly incarcerated. 

Due to the rate of recidivism, a person committing the same offense, it’s clear this approach doesn’t work. Rather than deterring drug use, punishment just makes it more difficult for addicts to get help. 

This method of punishment also doesn’t recognize addiction for what it is — a medical disorder caused by no fault of one’s own. There are many factors that contribute to addiction; some use to self-medicate an untreated mental illness, others due to being exposed to drug usage early in life. Multiple studies have also determined that addiction is likely genetic

America needs to focus on harm reduction, which aims to eliminate the hazards that come with drug use. A step that would be easy to implement is a needle exchange program. People can exchange used needles for clean ones, which keeps both addicts and communities safe by decreasing the amount of used needles in public areas. 

Addicts need to be treated as people, not criminals. They do not need your judgement because they already judge themselves enough. Instead of constantly asking when they’re going to get clean we should do what we can to take care of them in that moment. As someone who has known many addicts, people aren’t going to get help until they are ready to do so themselves.

Other countries have experienced success by establishing safe consumption sites where people can use drugs they already possess under the supervision of trained staff. They ensure sanitary drug use and have rules against sharing or dealing and can intervene if an overdose occurs. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, some of these facilities also connect addicts with healthcare, shelter, food, counseling and crisis intervention. 

These facilities wouldn’t be possible in America without an agreement with law enforcement to not arrest anyone or the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use. In the decade since Portugal decriminalized drug use, the number of addicts has decreased by half and there are now only 30 overdoses a year, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. There’s plenty of justification for decriminalization considering how the prosecution of drug possession has been used to uphold systemic racism in America. 

Oregon has recently taken a step in the right direction by passing Ballot Measure 110 in the 2020 election. The measure decriminalized the possession of small amounts of hard drugs beginning Feb. 1. Instead of jail time, people possessing drugs could face a $100 fine or a health assessment and addiction treatment. I disagree with the fine because it could continue to perpetuate inequality, but progress is progress.

Changing the way we think about addiction as a society and seeking guidance from other countries will lead to new measures being considered and implemented in the justice system and social programs. Addicts need our compassion — it could save their lives.

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