Is drug abuse a crime or a mental health issue?

64,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, which is a 20% increase in one year. In October, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.

In the U.S., 1.5 million serious addicts are incarcerated, and 70% of those released from prison return to drug use.

How should we address the growing crisis? Is addiction a crime or a health issue? We don’t send people to jail for cancer. Should drug use be considered an illness?

Drug addiction is a crime.

drugs and drug-related crime

Police want drug users off the streets because they tend to bring criminal behavior to their addition.

it’s the law

If a person breaks the law in the use of drugs then they should have consequences for their actions.

judges can help

Judges can guide addicts towards or through recovery by offering rewards and punishments as the person goes through the process. For example, if the addict stays “clean” his or her criminal record may be expunged by a judge; if the addict relapses, jail time can follow.

drug courts

In 1989 the first U.S. drug court was established. There are over 3000 of these courts that provide an alternative to jail time for drug users that includes a combination of supervision with drug treatment. One goal is to keep offenders in their daily lives, with supervision, allowing them to keep jobs, for example.

One study found that within a two-year follow-up period the re-arrest rate decreased from 40 percent before the drug court to 12 percent after the drug court started in one county, and the re-arrest rate decreased from 50 percent to 35 percent in another county.

Drug addiction is a mental health issue.

cruel and unusual punishment

Incarceration does not always include drug counseling or therapy.

In Commonwealth v. Julie Eldred, the Massachusetts Supreme Court will decide whether this amounts to cruel and unusual punishment for an offender with a substance-use disorder.

relapse is expected

Health professionals agree that for someone who is severely addicted his or her brain is so changed (geek out on it here) that it only functions with drugs, and a relapse can be expected even as the user moves toward sobriety.

This means drug rehab is more appropriate than jail time.

besides, drugs are available in jail

According to The Sentencing Project, the U.S. has the largest population of people in the jail in the world, with 2.2 million people currently locked up, which is a 500% increase over the last forty years–with much of the increase due to drug crime. In 1980, there were around 40,000 people in jail for drugs; in 2016, there were over 450,000 jailed for drugs.

The Washington Times reports that annually, in California prisons alone, there are over 1000 drug incidents, including seizures from inmates of heroin, marijuana and other drugs.

The Economist interviewed an inmate on the topic who said “drugs are easier to get than soap.”

Norway program

In Norway, convicted drug users have a choice: go to prison or go to rehab. The concept is based on a simple fact: people who receive treatment as opposed to punishment are less likely to re-offend, commit a crime, and cost the public more money. Portugal already has a similar approach and is seeing positive results.

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