For decades the drug addiction problem in the United States has been largely met with an “arrest-first-treat-later” mentality. There are currently over 85,000 inmates in prison for drug-related offenses, many of whom are imprisoned for simple possession convictions. The next highest rate of prisoners includes those jailed for weapons, explosive, and arson-related offenses at just over 31,000. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, drug offenders (both violent and non-violent) account for over 46 percent of the American prison population. Combine these figures with the fact that we make up five percent of the world’s total population but house 25 percent of its incarcerated population, and its clear that there is a complex and multifaceted problem.
Although cultural perception, politics and antiquated views of addiction have played a critical role in the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders, more and more mechanisms have been deployed over the last ten or so years to increase treatment access and keep non-violent offenders out of prison. Some of these measures include local drug courts that allow offenders to opt for treatment rather than jail-time and the expansion of treatment facilities to increase access to care. There also seems to be a widespread effort, both in the clinical treatment community and in the current administration, to regard drug and alcohol addiction as a bona fide medical disease, rather than a moral failing.
Recently this argument got more teeth with the nearly unanimous passage of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. The legislation was approved 90-2 in a Senate vote on Wednesday, and 407-5 in the House last Friday, and deals largely with opioid addiction above other drugs like crack cocaine or methamphetamine. With tens of thousands of Americans dying each year from these powerful painkillers and corresponding heroin overdose (over 47,000 in 2014), it’s hard to ignore the fact that this problem is now affecting Americans of every background, and thus needs a new approach to management other than jail-time.
Due in large part to the rapid proliferation of opioid abuse, the perception of the modern drug user is rapidly shifting from the unscrupulous criminal who has no compunction about pushing drugs to others, to the student athlete who got hooked on these drugs when they started taking them for an injury; or the senior citizen whose regimen was mismanaged by their doctor; or the professional who started taking them for post-surgical pain. The American opioid addiction problem has gotten so ubiquitous that it has changed the very idea of addiction and prompted a comprehensive institutional change to how we treat addicts. This is leading to increased funding for treatment as well as more innovative forms of treatment.
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