The War on Drugs, begun by Richard Nixon and continued and added onto by subsequent presidents, has not been as successful as its supporters hoped when they conceived it. Since its inception in 1971, estimates from different sources, including CNN and the Drug Policy Alliance, state that the U.S. has spent more than $1 trillion. And while the positive results of the war are negligible, what it has done, through mandatory minimum sentencing, harsher laws and other measures, is to help fill up the local, state and federal jails and prisons. Statistics from The Institute for Criminal Policy Research and World Prison Brief show that with 2,145,100 people currently incarcerated, the U.S. leads the world in prisoners. Roughly a quarter of the prison population were sentenced on drug charges.
And, with the current opioid epidemic ravaging Kentucky and neighboring states, the laws just got tougher. SB 14, signed into law in Kentucky on April 30, enforces more harsh penalties for drug use instead of offering drug treatment alternatives. This may cost the state of Kentucky an additional $30 million.
These actions do very little to address the issue that drives the drug problem in the United States: addiction. With the availability of drugs in the prison system, many times felons exit the system as addicted as when they entered. The solution, at least for nonviolent drug offenders, does not lie in more and harsher incarceration, but instead in what has been applied around the world – treatment.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH) has done significant study on addiction science, and while they acknowledge there is no universal treatment that works for everyone, there are principles and elements that, when applied, increase success rates. Some of these include:
- Treatment needs to be readily available – Addicts are generally reticent about entering drug rehabilitation programs for a variety of reasons; as a result, programs accessible to them and to which they can be admitted quickly are ideal, so that addicts find themselves in rehabilitation before they change their minds.
- Effective treatment attends to multiple needs of the individual, not just his or her drug abuse– Most drug addicts don’t exist in a vacuum. When they make the decision to change their lives, they must also think about those around them. Programs should consider the addict’s loved ones as well as their medical history, specific circumstances, and any cultural traits of the person entering the program.
- Many drug-addicted individuals also have other mental disorders – Drug addiction is often a symptom of mental disorders; sometimes it acerbates other mental illnesses. As a result, programs should have resources available to meet those additional mental treatment needs.
- Treatment does not necessarily need to be voluntary to be effective – No matter how the addict gets through the door, what matters is how effective the program is. To that end, whether it is voluntary or court-ordered, treatment centers must be adept at finding ways to reach addicts in order to properly do their jobs.
- Drug use during treatment must be monitored continuously, as lapses during treatment do occur – For some addicts, the knowledge that they will be tested helps them to keep from using whatever they may be addicted to. Whether it comes from a sense of pride or a feeling of shame if they fail in their endeavor, the idea of accountability helps many to keep from relapsing.
Time and again studies have shown that treatment is more effective than incarceration. Treatment addresses the issue and hopefully reduces recidivism rates for prisoners convicted of drug crimes, lowers overcrowding of the prison system, improves former addicts’ quality of life, and, perhaps the biggest surprise, saves a significant amount of money. A study by the journal Crime & Delinquency shows that if only 10 percent of the offenders eligible for community-based treatment programs enrolled, the criminal justice system would save $4.8 billion; if that number was raised to 40 percent, savings would total $12.9 billion. The choice is clear and obvious.