The Opioid Epidemic
The severity of the opioid epidemic is perhaps the best, but certainly not the only, evidence that the stance our federal, state and local governments are taking towards the problem of drug abuse is fundamentally flawed. As hundreds of lives are lost every day across the country to opioid overdoses, the time for the country to undergo a paradigm shift in its attempt to stem the opioid epidemic, and drug abuse in general, is now.
Origins of the war on drugs
Drug use, and addiction, have been a part of human existence for thousands of years. Since the beginning of recorded human history, there are stories of people using substances which alter a person’s mind or mood for both medical and spiritual purposes. A much more recent phenomenon however is the widespread attempt by the state to strictly regulate the use of these various substances. In the United States, lawmakers first began to use legislation in an attempt to curtail drug use with anti-opium laws in the 1870s. The next 100 years were marked by a number of anti-drug laws which were primarily directed at specific substances such as cocaine, marijuana and alcohol.
This changed drastically in 1971 when President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” dedicating a significant amount of federal resources in an attempt to target drug users in an attempt to punish the problem out of existence. The thought at the time was that drug use and addiction were problems which originated out of improper morals and a lack of negative consequences. Nixon’s aim was to radically increase the reach of law enforcement in order to create such strict punishment for drug offenses that no one in their right minds would choose to use drugs.
A flawed theory
The problem with this approach to drug use and addiction is that those who are addicted to mind and mood altering substances do not have the luxury of thinking logically. Of course, most people who are capable of making a choice between going to prison and not going to prison would choose the latter. However modern scientific research as well as the statistics on incarceration rates, specifically for drug offenses, clearly shows that drug addicts lack the power of normal thinking when it comes to their drug use. Their brains are actually altered and begin to function as if their drug of choice is critical for their continued survival.
Since the 1980s incarceration rates across the country have risen considerably. Between 1980 and 2016 the number of prisoners in the Federal Bureau of Prisons has increased from 24,640 to 192,170. That is an increase of almost 800%. Interestingly enough, this is during an era where violent crime rates have consistently declined. Those numbers aren’t even including the considerable larger population of those incarcerated in state prisons and local jails, which have increased at similar rates. The numbers add up to a total of about 2.3 million people currently incarcerated across the U.S.
Data source: U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons
Where are all of these prisoners coming from? They are made up primarily of non-violent drug offenders who simply could not sever their relationship with drugs. Things like the crack epidemic in the 80s and 90s as well as the current opioid epidemic in the country have led to an absurdly ballooning prison population made up of people whose main issue have been the fact that they have a disease called addiction.
The main issue here is the fact that drug addiction is not something that can simply be treated by locking someone away for years with the expectation that they will choose to change their life once they are released. Despite what many may want to believe, drug addiction is a disease which requires long-term and specialized treatment in order to contain. This type of desperately needed treatment is not currently being offered to prisoners on a large scale which means that many of the people we are locking away into cells are destined to return to prison as their diseases are still untreated. This is why locking drug addicts up for crimes like simple possession is not the way to confront things like the current opioid epidemic.
The worsening opioid epidemic
While the current opioid epidemic has a complex and multi-faceted origin, the war on drugs and society’s current views on addiction treatment have allowed it to spread like a cancer among our population. The main issue is the lack of understanding over the dynamics of the disease of addiction and what sort of measures can provide the possibility for recovery. The outcome of this now 45 year old policy on drug use is that we have more people behind bars than ever before, and a growing number of people who are finding themselves addicted to drugs and alcohol without adequate resources for recovery.
This is why the current opioid epidemic is continuing to grow to unprecedented levels. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, currently over 2.5 million Americans struggle with an addiction.