Two arrests take place for drug possession each minute in the U.S., but does punishment work for addiction? The answer is no.

In the United States, We Punish Addicts (And We Treat Them)

When you get down to it, if you’re addicted to illegal drugs, you’re a considered criminal in the United States. Certain drugs are against the law. You can go to prison if you are found with these kinds of drugs in your possession – whether you’re smoking crack or buying barbiturates on the street.

We punish addicts in America. Does punishment work for addiction? No. But, that doesn’t stop the sheriff from rounding up the usual suspects every day and locking them up for being addicted.

On the flip side, there are tens of thousands of treatment centers available in the U.S. if you want to get help for a problem with chemical dependency. This is because, when you get down to it, if you’re addicted to illegal drugs, you’re considered a sick person in the United States. Addiction is a disease. We treat addicts in America. Does treatment work for addiction? Why, yes. Yes it does.

It’s weird like that. We live in country that is divided right down the middle when it comes to the problem of addiction. Some believe in the punishment approach. Others believe in treatment. We favor the side that believes in treatment because it actually works. Punishment for addiction does not work.

America Wages War Against Addiction

For almost fifty years, the United States has been engaged in the longest-running war the country has ever fought. Costing the country trillions of dollars, it is the most expensive battle waged in its almost 250-year history. This war is being fought right here on American soil. Tens of thousands of men and women lose their life to the cause every year. It’s called the War on Drugs.

In 1971, former president Richard Nixon named drugs “public enemy number one” in the United States. This is how America’s now infamous War on Drugs started. Things only went downhill from there. Following his lead, when former president Ronald Regan took office in the 1980’s, he set in motion a strict drug policy that made incarceration for possession of illegal drugs mandatory.

Regan’s harsh penalties packed the prisons with low-level drug offenders. Instead of treating addiction as a disease, Regan and every subsequent president has continued to fight a losing battle by approaching addiction as a criminal issue. Now, we are building more and more prisons and they are all overflowing with people being jailed for possession of small amounts of drugs like heroin.

In the Past Forty Years, Drug Use Has Skyrocketed

During the 1970’s, the hippie counter culture protested the war in Vietnam with love, peace, and hair grease. And drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. Throughout the decade, the use of marijuana, LSD, heroin, MDMA, and cocaine increased dramatically. Pretty soon, the country had a major drug problem on its hands. What started out as innocent experimentation turned into full-blown addiction.

Since then, drug addiction has just continued to increase. Through the 80’s and 90’s, more and more people began abusing drugs like cocaine, heroin, and opiates. And, because of the drug war, more and more people kept going to prison. In 2017, millions of Americans are addicted to illegal drugs – and millions of people are doing time behind bars. If incarcerating addicts were an effective treatment for the problem of addiction, the prisons would be empty. Instead, they’re overflowing.

Some Surprising Statistics About the War on Drugs

If you want to know if punishment works for addiction, all you have to do is look at the statistics available. Addiction stats in Colorado alone are staggering. But, when you see what happens when drug addiction is treated like a crime from a national perspective, you can clearly see that punishment for addiction doesn’t work.

Here are some fast facts about the War on Drugs:

  • Two arrests take place for drug possession every minute in the U.S.
  • More than $51 billion is spent every year to fund the War on Drugs instead of allocating that money for treatment of addiction.
  • In 2016, more than 1.5 million people were arrested for a drug-related crime.
  • The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
  • In 2014, more than 2.2 million people were incarcerated in federal, state and local prisons and jails for a drug-related crime.
  • Most people who are arrested for a drug-related crime will be arrested again.
  • As much as 80 percent of all offenders (whether their crime was drug-related or not) have a problem with substance abuse

Since Nixon’s declaration of War, the problem of addiction in America has only become worse. In fact, the situation is now desperate. Where drugs were once an enemy, they are now an epidemic.

Addiction is a Disease, Not a Moral Failing

Despite the federal government’s current position on drugs, addiction is a disease – not a moral failing. If you have a problem with drugs, you are not a bad person. You are a sick person. It’s true that if you get caught with heroin in your pocket, you could go to jail. This is because America’s legal system treats addiction as a crime. Nevertheless, if you have heroin in your pocket, you need medical care…. not a trip to the slammer.

Addiction is a complex brain disease. When you abuse drugs, you lose the ability to tap into the higher functioning processes of the brain. You can no longer reason or make sound decisions. Your addiction takes control of your mind. You become powerless.

No one chooses addiction. It the result of the progression of obsessive and compulsive drug use.  No amount of willpower will break the cycle of addiction. Only a program of recovery can help you maintain sobriety.

Even if you were to go to jail today for a month and refrain from using drugs for that period of time, you would be using in no time once you got out if you didn’t get help for your problem while you were locked up.

This is because addiction is about more than simply not using drugs. It is about getting treatment for the brain disease responsible for the obsessive-compulsive process of addiction.

Jail Will Never Be Effective in Treating Addiction

You wouldn’t lock somebody up for having diabetes and expect them to get better without insulin. Why would you incarcerate someone with the disease of addiction and expect them to recover?

We have explained that addiction is a brain disease. Treatment for the addiction includes abstinence, a proven program of recovery like the 12-Steps, addiction education, a healthy lifestyle, and may include medication.

When you put someone in jail for having a substance abuse problem, you effectively stop the use of drugs for their stay in the criminal justice facility. However; without treatment, most people will immediately return to their drug of choice when they are let out. This is because punishment for addiction doesn’t work.

Compassionate Care is the Real Way to Treat Someone with an Addiction Problem.

By approaching addiction as a criminal issue, and incarcerating addicts instead of offering them treatment, we have seen that punishment for addiction doesn’t work. Yet, the War on Drug rages on and addiction continues to spread like wildfire.

The only way to effectively treat the disease of addiction is with compassionate care. No one sets out to become a crack addict. No one wants to be a hopeless heroin addict. Addiction is cunning, baffling, and powerful. It is a brain disease that causes someone to use drugs against their own will. People who are addicted need compassion, understanding, and love. Not the iron fist of justice.

No matter what the law might say, someone who is addicted does not deserve to spend their days in a jail cell. They deserve to enjoy the beautiful gift of recovery, which is available to all. If you have an addiction problem, you’re a sick person who needs to get well – not a bad person who deserves to be punished.

What do you think, does punishment work for addiction?

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