When people want to seek treatment for addiction, they may fear getting in trouble for drug possession. Others who are struggling with substance use might get caught in the incarceration system because being in and out of jail makes it hard to quit. This article talks about how drug criminalization makes it difficult for people to seek treatment and discusses more beneficial alternatives, such as drug decriminalization and harm reduction.

The Punitive Approach Toward a Major Health Crisis

The United States is facing an addiction epidemic. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the country was already facing rising statistics of opioid addiction and overdose. However, the pandemic has increased those statistics even further. In the year 2021 alone, it was estimated that over 100,000 people had died from an overdose. This statistic had increased by nearly 29% from the year prior (2020). Still, it must be made known that addiction is a treatable disease and recovery is possible for those who can seek treatment.

Although treatment is becoming more normalized, the disease itself is still penalized. In 2019, 86% of drug-related arrests were for drug possession. One article recognized that there are approximately 7.1 million adults in the United States who are under criminal justice supervision. Of those that are imprisoned, nearly half of them, including those who were arrested for crimes unrelated to drugs, have a substance use disorder (SUD). The same article conducted a survey of 15 states, finding that 25% of released prisoners returned to prison after three years for technical violations that often included failing a drug test. Many people who do end up in prison are often arrested, either directly or indirectly, because of their addiction.

Prison Worsens Mental Health and Substance Use

Due to conditions in the prison system, those who are dealing with addictions and co-occurring mental health disorders tend to experience worsening symptoms both during and after prison. The stigma of prison can make it hard for previously incarcerated people to find housing, social support, and financial support. The stresses of these hardships and instability often lead to relapse.

Those who leave prison may have no choice but to return to the environment that enabled drug use in the first place. Furthermore, those who have been in prison may be unaware that their tolerance is lower, leading to accidental overdose. Children of incarcerated parents are also more likely to become addicted to drugs because of the trauma they endured from adverse childhood experiences.

Criminalizing Addiction Creates Stigma

Drug use is often associated with crime. Those who use drugs are labeled as criminals and are cast aside to the margins of society. The stigma caused by criminalization causes people to assume that those who have an addiction are bad people, and that’s why they’re in prison. This stigma keeps people from seeking treatment out of fear of judgment and legal consequences. Only 18% of people struggling with an active addiction seek treatment.

Additional Concerns and Consequences of Addiction Criminalization

Since addiction is so closely associated with crime, many who have an addiction either won’t receive care because of a health care worker’s beliefs about addiction or because of the person’s fear of legal consequences. Sometimes, people who have a substance use problem might not disclose it to a health care practitioner, even if that information could be useful or life-saving.

Pregnant mothers who have an addiction might fear losing their child if it’s found that the mother used substances while pregnant, leading to her forgoing vital neonatal care. Some insurance companies also limit coverage for medications that treat SUD because of the stigma associated with them. Some doctors will outright refuse to care for people who have an addiction. This is all because of a stigma created by criminalization.

Legal Consequences Contribute to Silence

Hearing other people’s stories can humanize them. Many villainize people with addictions because they lack vital education about addiction being a complex disease. Still, some people with addictions are afraid to talk about their experiences or current use because of the legal consequences they could face. The silence about these people’s stories keeps the myths and stigma going despite the facts. If the United States is serious about fighting an addiction epidemic, then the justice system needs to look at how criminalizing drugs contributes to the problem.

Other Alternatives to Criminalization

Instead of arresting people for drug possession, another alternative to a punitive approach could be decriminalization and harm reduction. The drug decriminalization approach doesn’t legalize all drugs. When a person is found possessing drugs, they won’t be arrested and charged with a crime. Instead, they might receive a fine. Both Portugal and the Czech Republic have decriminalized drugs, as well as the state of Oregon.

Harm reduction is a practice where instead of punishing a person for addiction, measures are taken to ensure the safety of people with addiction. These measures prevent overdoses and health complications such as HIV contraction. Harm reduction strategies also direct people to addiction treatment services. Measures that are considered harm reduction include:

  • Safe injection sites
  • Distribution of naloxone
  • Needle exchange programs
  • Overdose reversal training
  • Providing economic opportunities

There are thousands of people in prison with an addiction who aren’t able to get the treatment and care that they need. Some places, like Oregon, are trying decriminalization strategies because they recognize the value of rehabilitative approaches rather than criminalization approaches. We need to advocate for treatment for those struggling with addiction, regardless of their background and story. Treatment is for everyone and a person shouldn’t be punished for having a potentially deadly disease. Luckily, harm reduction strategies can also be used to help save lives. Bella Monte Recovery Center is a treatment facility that offers a wide range of programs and services for clients looking to heal from the effects of substance use, mental health, and co-occurring disorders. We believe that professional treatment is necessary to establish long-term sobriety. We utilize individualized treatment plans to help make your treatment experience unique. To learn more, call (800) 974-1938.