The United States is currently engulfed in its largest public health crisis to date. In 2016, it is estimated that upwards of 60,000 people died as a result of drug overdose with even more deaths associated with substance abuse in general. (That’s more than the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War.)

It is estimated that drug overdose deaths increased by nearly 20 percent in 2016 compared to 2015. As the country finally begins to take notice, new laws and programs are being developed to combat the problem. Unfortunately, though, there is still a massive stigma surrounding drug addiction, which is adding fuel to the fire.
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Addiction Shouldn’t Be Punished

For nearly a century, the U.S. has responded to addiction or alcoholism with tough laws, prohibition and a “just say no” mentality. This has manifested into a harmful societal view of substance abuse. When those with chemical dependency are looked at and treated as criminals, they rarely are able to get any real help or rehabilitation. The “criminal model” on these behaviors has created a revolving door for addiction. Jails and prisons are inundated with drugs, providing a breeding ground for addiction and worsening mental health problems.

In addition to offering little help in jail, the threat of punishment and condemnation drives drug users into the shadows. Those who develop addictions fear jail time, fines, stigma and responses from family members. The current model on addiction promotes condemnation in a backwards attempt to “scare” or prevent people from using drugs. This method does not work. The problem comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of addiction.

Addiction Is a Disease

The reason scare tactics and tough laws do absolutely nothing to solve addiction is because one does not choose to become addicted to drugs. Scare tactics might work for, say, stealing cars or robbing banks, but addiction is a powerful disease characterized by the complete inability to stop or limit substance use. It starts with a mental obsession to keep using drugs and often ends with powerful physical dependency, leaving a person desperate and unable to function without their drug of choice. This is why the majority of U.S. prison inmates had drugs or alcohol in their system at the time of their crimes.

When a person is diagnosed with cancer, they are treated with love, compassion and understanding. Cancer patients are rarely cut off by their families or judged for being sick. This is exactly how it should be. Unfortunately, this is not also the case with addiction, as it can cause anger and resentment amongst loved ones. Those struggling with addiction are often viewed as degenerates, “junkies,” bums or just completely selfish individuals, which can often lead them to be cast out by their family and spouses, thrown in jail and deprived of healthcare. Addiction simply does not receive sympathy like other diseases, which hurts not only the person with addictive behaviors, but also contributes to the growing epidemic.

New Policies Will Reduce Addiction and Stigma

It is understandable that families will harbor fierce resentment after being repeatedly hurt by their loved one who is addicted, but shaming and punishment just isn’t effective. Creating boundaries while remaining emotionally supportive is very important to the recovery process. Those with addiction are often very aware of the harm they are causing, but because of the nature of substance abuse, they cannot control their drug problem and often feel hopeless. The stigma of addiction causes those struggling with it to feel as though they are a lost cause. Recovery is rarely visible due to the blinding effect of stigma, yet recovery is indeed possible and happens every day.

The only hope for ending the growing addiction epidemic is to change our mindset and accept addiction as a disease.

Instead of locking away someone experiencing a drug or alcohol problem or treating them as outcasts, drug policy should be completely overhauled to treat addiction as a health problem. Directing funding toward addiction treatment will reduce crime, treat the underlying causes of addiction, and even treat co-occurring mental health problems. Addiction treatment programs will stop the revolving door effect of jails.

In addition to actually treating addiction, funding addiction treatment actually costs less than incarcerations. Researchers at the University of Illinois published a study this month which calculated the average public cost of heroin addiction. In the study, the researchers claimed that those incarcerated who had heroin addictions were the most expensive for taxpayers, with the average cost of each individual being upwards of $75,000 per year. The study suggested replacing jail time with addiction treatment to save taxpayer dollars. They also mentioned that jail seems to be completely ineffective when it comes to treating addiction.

The only hope for ending the growing addiction epidemic is to change our mindset and accept addiction as a disease. Funding addiction treatment and making it more available is the only proven method to reduce substance abuse rates. Because first step to recovery is asking for help and a solid commitment to healing, reducing the stigma surrounding these issues will cause far more people to seek available help.

Article by Sam, a writer for Sober Nation. He is in recovery from addiction and now regularly writes about addiction, addiction treatment, recovery and harm reduction.