Drug Policy Doublethink

The great contradiction of our drug policy
by Maximilian Eyle

Whether or not one supports the disease model of addiction, it seems remarkable that the government is admitting in no uncertain terms that they are criminalizing the very people they claim are ill.

In the face of a growing opioid epidemic, the U.S. Government has defined its position on addiction. Visit the website for The National Institute of Health’s information service MedlinePlus and you will see that they define addiction as a medical problem; specifically, “a chronic disease”. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) seconds this analysis, stating:

“Many people don’t understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will.”1

The government’s language here is striking because despite these statements, the United States continues to treat drug use as a criminal issue, rather than as a public health issue. They agree that drug use is not a moral failing, yet there were over 1.6 million drug arrests in 2017. Make no mistake – more than 85% of these arrests were for possession alone. The idea that law enforcement is only targeting illegal drug manufacturers and dealers is a myth. Most victims of America’s War on Drugs are the users themselves, many of whom suffer from addiction.

There is a complex and ongoing debate as to whether drug addiction qualifies as a disease. Regardless of your position on that issue, both sides should be able to agree that the nation’s current drug policy landscape is fraught with contradictions. The policy of arresting people for drug offenses clearly has no impact on overdose prevention. On the contrary, The American Journal of Public Health reported that recently released inmates are 40 times more likely to die from an opioid overdose than the average person.2 When we compare the amount of annual drug arrests with the amount of annual drug overdose fatalities, we can clearly see that the incarceration of drug users is worsening the opioid epidemic – not helping it.

The contradiction between the rhetoric of the government and the actions of law enforcement must be rectified. If the U.S. Government truly regards the opioid epidemic as a public health concern, they should start investing their resources into public health resources and harm reduction initiatives rather than punitive measures.

1. https://medlineplus.gov/opioidabuseandaddiction.html
2. https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304514?journalCode=ajph
3. https://www.drugwarfacts.org/table/annual-drug-arrests

Maximilian Eyle is a native of Syracuse, NY and a graduate of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He works as a media consultant and writes each month about a variety of issues for Spanish-language papers across New York State. Maximilian has a love of Hispanic culture and learned Spanish while living in Spain where he studied and worked as an English teacher. He can be contacted at maxeyle@gmail.com.