Addiction is not a crime: why punishing someone for using drugs doesn’t work

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There are over 200,000 people currently in federal prison in the United States. Nearly half (48.6%) of those people are in jail on drug offenses. Of more than 1.3 million people in state prisons, about 16 percent have nothing more serious than a drug offense on their record. About 117,000 people were arrested for drugs in California in 2012 alone. We don’t know the circumstances behind each of these incarcerations, but this underscores a serious problem in the way we handle drug addiction with punishment. There are three short words to describe this approach to treating addicts: It doesn’t work. Punishing people for using drugs doesn’t help them. It doesn’t help them stop, and it doesn’t make them safer. Here’s why.

Punishment for Addiction Isn’t Treatment for Addiction

The punitive model of drug treatment seems to revel in shaming and confronting addicts with their problems, in an attempt to break them down. This Spartan method of treatment is championed by “tough love” advocates, but they tend to double down on the “tough” and ignore the “love.” Addicts don’t need to be shamed. Generally speaking, they feel enough shame and guilt already. Substance abuse is often tied to mental illness, and these tactics simply stoke those vulnerabilities and drive them deeper into their vices. In fact, given the science of addiction, punishment is completely counter-intuitive. The main feature of addiction is that it compels someone to continue using a substance or exhibiting a behavior despite the ongoing negative consequences. The case of Cameron Douglas is an example that illustrates this very well. Put more simply, addiction makes people ignore punishments and consequences. So by its very nature, punishment is a completely ineffectual way to fight addiction.

Treating Addiction Means Understanding Addiction

The most effective treatment methods for addiction are the ones that educate. Punishing a child by withholding dessert is all well and good, but if you don’t explain to them why you’re doing it, you’re not going to change their behavior – even if they wanted to, you’re not helping them understand how. You change undesirable behaviors by explaining and educating people on what they did, and how to avoid doing those things in the future. Many addicts have no idea what’s happening to them while they’re addicted to drugs. Consequently, they have no idea how to avoid the pitfalls of drug use in the future. Even if they’re motivated to get clean and stop using, they lack the knowledge and strategies to understand their problem and fix it. Prison and punishment does not teach these skills. It simply punishes them without offering any apparent way out.

Alternatives to Punishment for Addiction

As it stands, possession and use of illicit drugs is still a crime under the letter of the law in the United States. However, some cities like Seattle are taking a different approach to how they deal with drug offenders. Seattle’s LEAD program takes people arrested for low-level drug charges and prostitution and places them into community treatment programs, rather than straight into prison. The result of the LEAD program has been lower incarceration numbers, and statistically significant improvement in recovery rate, with far fewer repeat offenses. Yet most states, cities and counties continue to adhere to the classic method of punishment for the sake of punishment. If we’re serious about beating addiction, both on an individual level and on a nationwide level, we need to take an open and honest look at what does and doesn’t work. Punishment doesn’t stop the addiction. Punishment doesn’t change negative behavior. The National Institute on Drug Abuse lists five steps in an ideal addiction treatment program:

  1. Detoxification
  2. Behavioral counseling
  3. Medication
  4. Mental health evaluation and treatment
  5. Long-term follow-up care

You’ll notice “incarceration” and “punishment for drug use” are notably absent from this list. It’s time to admit there’s a reason for this, and to start treating addiction as a disease and an ailment to be met with compassion. To do that, we must educate ourselves on the nature of addiction. The alternative is to keep people in a despair-inducing revolving door between jail and the streets, ruining lives and costing billions in taxpayer dollars for an approach that has proven to fail time after time after time.