If addiction is a disease and addicts caught with possession go to jail, does that mean we imprison them because of their disease? Can we do better? Most argue for decriminalization but some even argue for legalization. Let’s look more closely.
First off, how do we know Addiction is a Disease and not just a weak mind?
A disease is an abnormal condition that negatively affects the structure or function of an organism.
Hypertension ￼(high blood pressure) is a disease. It can be caused by excess salt intake, obesity or genetics. The heart undergoes structural changes over time and it can be treated with medications.
Addiction is the same.
Brain scans reveal structural changes with prolonged drug use. We see improvement in brain function with sobriety. Certain medications can help addicts stay sober. Genetic studies have shown susceptibility to addiction.
I ask again, if Addiction is a Disease, how can we imprison the addict?
So what’s the solution? Should drugs be decriminalized or even legalized? Let’s look at the arguments.
If drugs are decriminalized people would not face prosecution for drug use or possession. Currently most prisoners are incarcerated due to a drug related offense. Instead of being re-traumatized in a prison setting which would further perpetuate their disease of addiction, they should be diverted to treatment for their disease.
This has been done in Portugal since 2001, drug addicts are no longer deemed criminal but instead as patients. In the US about 50,000 people die of overdose per year, in Portugal this number has fallen to nearly 0. Nearly Zero!
How is this possible?
￼Addicts in Portugal no longer fear seeking treatment for their disease. When they get stopped for possession by the police they do not go to jail, instead they are seen by a Doctor, Nurse, Social Worker, Counselor and Legal Aid.
They are offered a life of freedom instead of incarceration.
I approach addicts in my office with love and understanding. Not because I was trained this way but because I am an addict myself. I know they have been shamed, judged and mistreated by law enforcement and even their own family. From a medical perspective we are here to help them. They are not always to blame for their disease. They would never choose to have their disease.
With decriminalization more people may gain this perspective, one of understanding and forgiveness.
When they relapse I’ll say something like “it’s okay, don’t worry about it, I’m not going to shame you or kick you out of my clinic, I am going to try and help you, to figure out why you keep relapsing.” When I suspect they may not be telling the truth I tell them “hey tell me what happened, you can trust me, I’m not going to be mad, everything you tell me is completely confidential.”
Decriminalization allows for other possibilities.
We can implement safe injection sites. These are places where you can get clean needles to inject your heroin. If you overdose there’s a nurse on standby to revive you with Narcan. There is also counseling and treatment available.
Drug testing facilities could test your drug to ensure there are no harmful contaminants.
What about legalization?
Alcohol is legal therefore you can buy it in the store. Should all drugs be available like this? Crazy right, but hold on. Think about it. If private companies are allowed to manufacture these drugs and sell them on the open market a few things may happen.
First there would be NO black market for drugs. During prohibition the mafia thrived on selling alcohol illegally. So did violence. Once prohibition was ended, so did the violence. The alcohol was taxed therefore benefiting the government. The legal sale of alcohol ensures that it is safe and free of contaminants. The consumer knows what percentage of alcohol they are consuming. Age restriction is controlled.
Do you think the same may happen with other drugs? Will we see gang activity decrease? Will drug smuggling and the associated violence decrease? Will the number of contaminated drugs and overdoses decrease? Likely.
Will more people gain access? Unfortunately.
The major concern with this is that drugs will be more available to the general public, with that comes more exposure therefore more addiction and other negative consequences. The worst fear is that children may have access.
With increased awareness, education, risk aversion, access to treatment and available help these forces may balance out.
Hold on, is there a potential problem with these arguments we do not see. Is there another model we can refer to? There is…
In the states where marijuana have been legalized we have seen several things happen. The incidence of children and animals consuming marijuana has gone up. Emergency rooms have seen an increase in acute psychosis triggered by marijuana. The dispensaries who can legally sell marijuana is in strong competition with people who grow it in their backyards and selling it themselves. It is not a perfect situation.
I have seen reports that claim the incidence (new cases) of marijuana use has not drastically increased.
I was addicted to marijuana, it nearly ruined my life, see Why I quit Cannabis? I think we will see many more people that will experience the same. The same potential exists for legalizing any other drug.
Alcohol, tobacco and caffeine are three very addictive drugs and federally legal. Combined the first two are responsible for over half a million people every year. Legalizing other drugs may increase this number further.
Overall it is a tough discussion and countries like Portugal are showing us a better model. I think in a hundred years people will scratch their head in disbelief that we tried using force and isolation in attempt to combat addiction.
Addiction itself is when one is stuck in a harmful behavior. You can argue that it is a form of selfmade slavery, to a substance.
Should the solution to this problem not be liberation?
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