They're moral failures. They choose to make bad decisions. They're selfish and don't have their priorities straight.
In American culture, addiction has long been stigmatized — and worse. Yet that's part of the problem; the more those who struggle with addiction feel marginalized, the less likely they are to get help.
"A lot of people see people struggling with addiction as criminals and losers. They ask, 'Why can't you just stop?'" said Amber Masters, a recovering addict who now works at Morningside Recovery in Irvine. "The reality is, they're sick."
The American Medical Association has categorized addiction as a disease for decades. The American Society of Addiction Medicine describes the condition as "a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry." That designation suggests that thinking of and treating people with addiction as patients rather than bad apples and criminals who deserve jail time could go a long way in addressing this country's drug problem, reducing overdose deaths and solving other related issues.
"Compare it to someone you know having cancer," Masters said. "If someone you love is sick, you would do anything in your power to help them."
Unfortunately, America's long-running war on drugs perpetuates stigma and does little to help those who battle this disease. Instead, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, the U.S. spends more than $51 billion a year on the drug war, which includes the current approach that criminalizes and incarcerates those who suffer from addiction rather than guiding them toward treatment programs that could help break the cycle of addiction. The DPA also notes that 83% of drug-related arrests in 2014 were for possession-only charges — the type commonly brought against addicts.
New approaches to addiction around the world
Governments and law enforcement agencies in other countries have seen success by following compassionate, treatment-focused approaches.
The Netherlands, for example, which has long taken a liberal approach to drug policy, has one of the lowest rates of problem drug use in Europe. The percentage of Dutch who have used heroin is one-third that of U.S. residents.
Other countries are realizing the U.S.'s tactics don't work and are changing course accordingly. Portugal is a prime example. To combat a heroin epidemic in the 1990s, officials waged an American-style war on drugs with little success. In 2001, the country decriminalized drug use and low-level possession. Over the past 15 years, the numbers of drug users dropped, and among those who do use, overdose deaths decreased by 72% and new HIV infections plummeted by 94%.
Closer to home, the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, opened North America's first legal safe-injection site in 2003. The location, called Insite, offers a safe place for people suffering from addiction to use drugs. It's supervised by medical professionals who provide clean needles and have medication on hand to help prevent overdose deaths. Since then, there's been a 35% decrease in fatal drug overdoses and a 30% increase in addiction treatment services in the neighborhood where the facility is located.
Change can happen in America
The U.S. federal government is still a long way from relaxing its policy of criminally prosecuting drug users, but there are signs of change both in policy and public opinion.
In June 2015, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, an area hard-hit by the current opioid epidemic, the police department implemented a new program that offers treatment to people who ask for it — and who can turn in any drugs with no risk of arrest. More states are also legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use, which could help reduce the number of people imprisoned for simple possession charges, potentially keeping them out of the system and off harder substances.
A changing narrative about addiction in media and pop culture is also helping to shift how the public views the disease and those who experience it. TV shows increasingly delve into the topic, with some telling the story from an addicted person's perspective. ABC's "Mom" follows a mother and daughter who both attend AA meetings regularly and provides a nuanced view of life in recovery.
The more the public can see and understand the realities of drug and alcohol addiction — that it's not a moral issue or inherent personality defect and that people struggling deserve empathy and compassion rather than to be marginalized — the more hope there will be for those battling addiction. And the more public perception and policies shift in that direction, the more quickly it will lead to the creation of new, alternative and ultimately more effective treatments that work to fight substance abuse issues on both a personal and community level.
"Right now, courts only mandate treatment after you've been charged with a felony, but first-time offenders should be put into a drug program," Masters said. "I think the problem has become so prevalent now that people are starting to realize things have to change."
—Travis Marshall for Morningside Recovery
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