Time Traveling in the Wrong Direction

In February of this year, the Georgia Department of Labor started encouraging businesses to report job applicants with "dirty" urine. (So far, none have done so.) The reasoning behind this new policy is that federal law allows states to deny unemployment insurance benefits to workers who fail an employer's -- or a potential employer's -- drug test, because failing a drug test can be interpreted as being "unavailable for employment."

Frankly, Georgia's policy returns the state to the drug and alcohol dark ages, when addiction was viewed as a moral failing as opposed to a treatable illness -- when alcoholics were seen as hopeless bums and a drain on society, and drug addicts were seen as degenerates to be feared and locked up. The current thinking in Georgia seems to be that if someone is using drugs, they don't deserve help, so let's cut them off completely and maybe they'll go away.

Interestingly, two months after the state of Georgia implemented its archaic policy, the Obama administration released its 2012 National Drug Control Strategy, building on the president's thoughtful and progressive initial Drug Control Strategy, which was introduced in 2010. Basically, the national policy is grounded in three research-based premises that are now widely accepted in the alcohol- and drug-addiction-treatment field:

  1. Drug addiction is not a moral failing but a preventable and treatable chronic brain disease.
  2. People can and do recover from addiction.
  3. Criminal justice reforms are needed to stop the cycle of drug use, crime, incarceration, and re-arrest.

This strategy also rejects approaches that are not backed by research or that have proven to be unsuccessful. Chief among these rejected strategies is the belief that we can "arrest" our way out of the drug problem through a punitive war on drugs. The simple fact is that punishment is a tried and truly failed policy. More than 7 million Americans are currently under the supervision of the criminal justice system, with a large percentage of that number in for drug offenses, and even still, more people than ever are dying drug-related deaths.

Georgia's witch hunt on unemployed drug users is time traveling in the wrong direction, re-stigmatizing addiction and re-implementing the failed war on drugs. Instead of moving forward with policies based on what we actually know about drug addiction, the state has turned the clock back a century, choosing to attack rather than help the most marginalized members of its population. And one can only wonder what's next on the agenda. Will overweight individuals be denied unemployment because they're lazy and therefore unavailable for work? Will single mothers be denied benefits because they're too slutty to make it to their job on time? Will the state start posting lookouts in bars to see if unemployment recipients are stopping in for a beer after a long day of job hunting?

As evidence continues to mount that addiction is a chronic brain disease, our nation's policies must continue the ongoing process of de-stigmatizing addiction and granting access to treatment for those who need it. Georgia's policy of searching out these individuals and cutting them off from benefits rather than offering them treatmentis likely to exacerbate rather than curb the nation's ongoing struggle with addictive substances.

David Sack, M.D., is board certified in Psychiatry, Addiction Psychiatry, and Addiction Medicine. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health he oversees addiction treatment programs such as Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and The Ranch in Tennessee. You can follow Dr. Sack on Twitter.