Rise in Opiate Addiction Results in Push for Compassionate Drug Policies

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) has decided that drug addiction is a disease, and not an aberrant behavior. People who use drugs, says ASAM, are not criminals.

A four-year process, involving more than 80 experts, decided that drug addiction is the result of a brain disorder, and have decided that it is a "primary disease." (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/44147493/ns/health-addictions/t/addiction-now-defined-brain-disorder-not-behavior-issue/#.VxbdK2NllmB)

This group of medical experts has decided that drug addiction is an chronic disease, similar to diabetes, hypertension or other chronic illnesses which require ongoing treatment over a person's lifetime.

Interesting that the results of this report should come on the heels of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS), which this week in New York engaged interfaith leaders from all over the world to become a force in getting lawmakers to change drug policies which have criminalized people, especially black, brown and poor people.

As the incidence of opiate addiction has increased, no longer able to be hidden, there has been a move to consider drug addiction as a public health issue, and not a crime, something which is long overdue. Not surprisingly, statistics indicate that it is white people who are most affected by and engaged in opiate drug use, resulting in a rise in addiction.

The "War on Drugs" , begun by President Richard Nixon, created mayhem for drug users in urban communities; it contributed to mass incarceration in the United States, causing this country to incarcerate more people - primarily for non-violent drug offenses - than any other modern country. The collateral damage from mass incarceration resulted in the destruction of individuals, families and communities. It gave the "go ahead" to law enforcement officers to go after black, brown and poor people for possession of drugs, most often marijuana, which resulted in more and more people going to prison. Their incarceration effectively destroyed their families. Once released, the previously-incarcerated were often unable to find employment, could not live with their families in public housing, often could not get driver's' licenses ...and generally just could not find a way to live.

That being the case, with no where to live and no prospect of getting work, too many released "felons" ended up back in prison. It was just easier to survive. The system was rigged to make them fail.

Just today, at the UNGASS event, a young man who had been jailed for 25 years for drug possession and selling drugs, shared with me his story. He was not violent, but was convicted of a drug offense. He spent 13 years in solitary confinement because, he said, he refused to be "made over" by his prison experience. He was not going to let other men rape him; he was going to fight back when the guards beat him for nothing. He was willing to suffer to protect his dignity.

I asked him how he survived 13 years in solitary confinement, and what he shared broke my heart. He described the small cell in which he spent 23 of 24 hours every day. He said that in that space, "guys would do anything to stay sane."

"You could begin counting the holes in the wall, and lose count ...and start all over again," he said. "You would do ...you had to do ...anything to keep your sanity."

All for a non-violent drug offense.

As long as drug addiction was thought to be primarily a problem of urban men and women, there was little incentive to study it or to try to curb it; the assumption was, as it has been in this world for the longest time, that black, brown and poor people are objects, and bad objects at that. If they were in prison, they deserved to be.

But now that opiate addiction is rising, affecting primarily young white people, the sentiment is changing. There is an urgency to get the language around addiction reframed. These are not bad kids, the message is being given. These kids are sick and need our help.

Let's call that a good thing. Let's say that perhaps the attention to opiate addiction might be the impetus to stop criminalizing everyone who uses and sells drugs, who steals to support his or her habit, and who destroys his or her family in the ongoing quest for the next high. Let's say that a change in perspective makes lawmakers come up with laws that actually help the addict, not destroy him or her further.

In that scenario, what happens to all those people sitting in prison now, for non-violent drug offenses? Can or will we let them out of prison? Can the lawmakers - worldwide- come up with policies that will enable these people, who I say were wrongly convicted, retrieve their lives? Can they develop a moral backbone and leave their desire to cater to a base that demands selective "law and order" and perhaps toss this issue to the health community?

That would seem to be the only right thing to do, in a culture and society which is now making it possible for white people to sell marijuana and become millionaires, while just the possession of that same drug resulted in destroyed lives and families for way too many individuals.

It will be interesting to see what happens, in light of this determination of the ASAM. We will see...