United States Justice Department’s statistics confirm the U.S.A. has more prisoners than any other country in the world. In 2006, that number was 2.5 million and continues to rise. Between 2000 and 2006, the nation experienced the largest jump in incarcerations ever. Criminal justice experts attribute the exploding prison population to harsher sentencing laws, particularly those related to illegal substance possession/use.

Whether addiction is an actual disease remains a hotly debated topic – one which probably will continue. Webster’s defines ‘disease’ as follows: “Any departure from health presenting marked symptoms; malady, illness; disorder”. Drug addiction certainly meets that measure; show me a drug addict and I’ll show you someone presenting symptoms of illness, malady and disorder.

  • Drug addiction is responsible for many psychological problems; including, depression, mania, violent fantasies, etc.
  • Drug addiction leads to serious physical ailments, including heart attack, stroke, organ failure and death
  • The drug addict’s life most certainly is one of “dis-order”; no longer able to hold a job, relate to other human beings, to care for their personal hygiene, there is no order to be found
  • The child of an addict is 3-5 times more likely to become alcoholic/addict as well; bolstering the data that suggests there is a strong genetic (medical) link

Our country is in need of a serious shift in overall thinking about how drug addicts should be treated. Incarceration does not work; plain and simple. Few states have the money (or interest) to devote to providing treatment for addicts behind bars. In fact, statistics revel that many addictions actually grow while in prison. The availability of drugs and the need (desire) to escape leads drug addicts to use more and for those not exposed to drugs in the ‘outside world’ to begin using.

With no treatment available and drugs easily obtained, how can we expect our prison population to achieve and maintain sobriety? It seems we cannot; at least, not at this point. The most recent data reveals that inmates who are serving time on drug-related charges experience the highest recidivism rates of all offenders. This is due to 1. They’ve not been given any tools to work with while in jail, 2. Once ‘on the street’ they return to old circumstances and behaviors 3. Even among addicts participating in recovery programs, relapse is fairly common.

Actress, Tatum O’Neal, made news recently when she was arrested for purchasing crack-cocaine. Ms. O’Neal has fought a long battle with substance abuse and has stayed clean and sober for years at a time. Unlike “John Smith”, who would have been locked up immediately for this illegal behavior; Ms. O’Neal has been sent to a treatment center to recover. ALL addicts should have the same opportunities to recover. If we cannot appeal to Americans’ compassion, perhaps we can appeal to their greed. The cost of incarcerating an addict costs 10X more than treatment does. Add that to the fact, that many less people are likely to re-offend after treatment (vs. jail) and you can see how the savings would be quite significant.

Prosecutors in many states (like New York) do have the ability to recommend treatment for drug addicts vs. arrest and conviction. Unfortunately, many prosecutors are more concerned with their “win-loss” record; they consider conviction a victory and treatment a defeat. Our judicial system, in no way rewards prosecutors for doing the compassionate thing; that is something that must change.

There is a widely-held belief in America that Holland has a permissive attitude towards drugs; it does not. Rather, the country has adopted a more practical approach. Large-scale drug trafficking is still vigorously prosecuted. Drug use, however, is considered to be a public-health issue, not a criminal one. Addicts who are caught stealing or breaking other laws are prosecuted, but they are not arrested for possession.

The U.S.A. might be able to learn a few things about handling drug abuse by studying the Dutch. Thirty years ago the population of heroin addicts in the Netherlands was estimated to have been 25,000 to 30,000. While the country’s population has grown by 6 percent in the past three decades, the number of heroin addicts has remained virtually the same Very few new users have joined their ranks and as the “old-timers” age, they are dying off, leading to a further decline in heroin use.

Wim van den Brink, a psychiatrist at the Academic Medical Center of the University of Amsterdam, sums up the country’s drug policy this way “The view is that addiction is a brain disease and it requires treatment, not incarceration”. This policy is responsible for a remarkable statistic: approximately 70 percent of Holland’s drug addicts are in treatment programs; only 10-15 percent of America’s are.

We often hear “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Well, our approach to treating drug addicts is completely broken and in serious need of immediate repair.