Should We Have a Bailiff and a Judge at Weight Watchers?

Gavel with copy space
Gavel with copy space

It's your turn for your weekly Weight Watchers weigh in. You're dreading it, remembering your kid's birthday party and those other times when you busted your diet. You step on the scale. You've gained four pounds.

Suddenly the security guard takes you into custody, and the counselor says you're going to jail for the weekend, maybe longer. Your weight gain is proof that you can't adhere to the program. Your kids are put in foster care. What started as a personal health issue has now made you a criminal. You're wasting away in jail while your family is torn apart. Ironically, you end up gaining more weight in jail.

Sound crazy? It is, and it happens all the time to people caught using drugs. Just replace "Weight Watchers" with "drug courts."

I hope we never mandate that someone has to lose weight or face the criminal justice system, or has to stop smoking cigarettes, or has to stop cheerleading. (Have you seen the statistics for cheerleading injuries?!) If our government was to criminalize any of these things, we'd cry totalitarianism, gulags and Big Brother. Yet we criminalize people who use drugs. We call it the drug war. We dress it up as drug courts.

Some think drug courts are the utopian answer to both drug use problems and over-incarceration. Indeed, their expansion is a key recommendation in the drug czar's 2013 National Drug Strategy. Drug courts are part of a kinder, gentler drug war. Mind your manners, pass clean urine screenings, and everyone wins.

The reality is much different. As the Drug Policy Alliance exposed in its report Drug Courts Are Not the Answer, drug courts may not reduce incarceration, improve public safety, or save money when compared to the wholly punitive model they seek to replace.

But beyond that, the drug court model is fundamentally flawed. It attempts to treat a health issue with the criminal justice system. With what other kind of personal health issue do we use our police, courts, and jails to force people to get better and then punish them if they fail? Where are the obesity courts? Where are the clumsy cheerleaders in handcuffs?

People who are using drugs are exactly that: people. Some may be addicted, harming their health and disappointing their loved ones, but until a person who uses drugs does something to harm someone else, that person should be no business of the criminal justice system. Their drug use should be a personal health matter to be handled with their doctor and family.

Instead, we arrest them, force them into treatment, test their urine, and lock them up if they relapse. Treatment professionals are deputized, expected to rat on their patients. Judges make treatment decisions. Children bounce between relatives and foster families, and the cycle continues.

An effective drug strategy would invest in real, voluntary treatment and reduce as much as possible the role of the criminal justice system in dealing with people who use drugs. Drug courts are not the answer.

Imagine again that Weight Watchers meeting. Would we tolerate if our overweight family members were criminalized for failing their diet? No, we would fight for them. We would support them. We would help them. Let's do the same for our family members who happen to have a drug problem.

This piece first ran on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.