Addiction is a Disease, Not a Crime – so why do we criminalize those who have it?
Addiction is a chronic disease, much like hypertension or diabetes. Yet we often approach addiction as a moral or legal issue rather than a health issue. Doing so places a permanent stigma on addicts, creating life-long repercussions and barriers that derail lasting recovery and healthy outcomes.
Treatment and sustained, long-term recovery for addicts not only benefits the addict, but also yields healthier families and safer communities, and reduces costs for all. Still, our short-sighted policies argue against long-term recovery by creating multiple barriers for those seeking to recover from this disease.
Several of these barriers are imposed by the criminal justice system, a familiar outcome for anyone using illegal substances. The capriciousness of our drug polices is evidenced by demonizing heroin, while legalizing and controlling methadone, a much more addictive and physically debilitating drug. Often our answer to those suffering from the disease of addiction is incarceration. Several years ago, a UCLA study showed we save $7.00 spent on the prison system for every $1.00 spent on treatment. Most systems maintain a permanent record of your arrest, marking you with a stigma that follows you for life.
The stigma of a criminal record for a recovering addict is detrimental to their pursuit of a healthy life; it labels them and erroneously perpetuates the false assumption that addiction is a moral failing, rather than a relentless and complex disease that requires life-long vigilance and management. This stigma adds to the sense of failure and stress, and contributes to relapse. These psychosocial aspects of recovery are equally important as breaking the physical addictions to drugs and alcohol. Lasting recovery depends on regaining the things that were lost or never found, including a place in the family and community, significant relationships, career, home and sense of self. Many clients at CLARE suffer from this stigma. It inhibits their job search and prevents them from attaining stable housing, some of the basics in pursuing a healthy and secure future.
We don’t arrest, incarcerate and stigmatize persons suffering from other diseases. Criminalizing the disease of addiction does not work, and we need to shift our policies in favor of ones that contribute to healthy outcomes. We must provide addicts with treatment, without the shame of prosecution in order to truly give them their best chance of a healthy, recovered life.