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A Shift In Policy: What This Means For The Public Discourse On Addiction

For many years the stance that lawmakers took on drug addiction is that it was criminal and inherently bad. Addiction although listed as a disease for the last 80 years has carried a stigma that no other disease has. They viewed drug addicts as a blight on society that needed to be locked up and because of this the nation’s drug policies centered on harsh penalties for non-violent drug related offenses and offered no quarter for the drug addict.

The war on drug addiction started with Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. Coming out of the turbulent 1960s, the general population seemed to believe that a majority of the country’s problems, like the breakdown of family values, etc., stemmed from the widespread drug usage that gained popularity in the counterculture movement. Looking to curb these issues, Nixon “dramatically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies, and pushed through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.”

Nixon’s policies had little to no effect on drug addiction in this country and yet the path he forged was continued for the next 40 years, with increasingly harsh penalties and an even furthering schism between rehabilitation and punishment. The 1980s brought us “Just Say No”, which denied any reasonable discussion on drug addiction in this country and ushered in the age of mass incarceration in the United States. The 1990s brought us Bill Clinton, who just a few months into his presidency rejected a U.S. Sentencing Commission recommendation to remove the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences. The early 2000s saw a militarization of drug enforcement agencies and increased spending in law enforcement for non-violent drug offenses. All the while drug usage continued unabated and those who needed help only found handcuffs and iron bars.

It would be easy to blame lawmakers for all of this, but they can’t be entirely blamed for what they did. Drug addiction is a complex issue that is often misunderstood. It is difficult for even  those with extensive knowledge on the subject to separate the criminal actions undertaken in order to continue usage with the person doing them. Being able to view the drug addict as a sick person afflicted with an illness and realize that their actions are the byproduct of a disease can at times be almost impossible. Yet, making this distinction appears to be where we are finally headed as a country.

The passage of the CARA Bill and high-profile statements by President Obama and other government officials seem to be heralding in a shift in perspective on drug addiction in this country. Government officials seem to have finally reached an understanding that drug addiction cannot be combatted with fear and punishment and that the policies of the past have done nothing but line the pockets of private prison owners and remove entire generations of minorities from society. In effect, the War On Drugs has been an abysmal failure and so this shift in political thought is what this country needs in order to finally address the public health concern that is drug addiction.

The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which was just signed into law by President Obama on July 22nd, is a bipartisan bill that seeks to shift the focus on how to deal with drug addiction in this country away from incarceration and towards rehabilitation. This is a major step in the right direction for what we need in terms of drug policy in this country and it will hopefully help alleviate our overcrowded prison systems by getting drug addicts treatment rather than long prison sentences.

However, even though the CARA bill was passed almost unanimously across the aisle, this does not mean that the Democrats and Republicans see eye to eye on how to deal with the issue of drug addiction in this country. This difference in opinion between Democrats and Republicans is not necessarily a bad thing, as democracy is built on opposing forces, but it could mean slower progress in the movement towards societal change for drug addiction.

The Democrat’s stance on drug addiction is that there needs to be a reduction in the racial disparities that we have seen with sentences handed out for drug-related crimes, as well as a shift in focus towards prosecuting those trafficking drugs rather than those using them. The Democrats want to make it mandatory for inmates getting out of prison to be clean and once they are out they want to make it easier for them to find work. They still hold on to the idea that “drying up drug demand” is the way to go about combating drug addiction, which seems to be a losing proposition, as there will probably always be a demand for drugs wherever there are people. Overall, the Democrat’s stance seems to be pushing towards a more progressive view on drug addiction, which is desperately needed.

The Republican’s share similar views to the Democrats and their party line on drug addiction is that it ruins lives and we all have a responsibility to teach children about the dangers of drug addiction. The Republicans believe in drug education coupled with jail-time as a means to deter drug usage. They believe in sending first-time offenders to drug court and rehabilitation rather than jail, but overall they believe in stricter sentencing then the Democrats.

So what does all of this mean for the public discourse on addiction? It is hard to say exactly what will come from the CARA bill and the wider understanding that drug addiction is a cause for concern in this country, but it does appear that we are headed in the right direction. As a country, we seem to have finally agreed that drug addiction is everyone’s problem and so we have to address it rather than continue to sweep it under the carpet. Our policies of the past have shown us what doesn’t work and so hopefully moving into the future we can have a lively and intelligent discussion on how best to combat drug addiction in the country. We will hopefully see an influx of affordable treatment options, backed by the medical and psychological communities and begin to treat drug addiction rather than punish it.

Rose Lockinger is a passionate member of the recovery community. A rebel who found her cause, she uses blogging and social media to raise the awareness about the disease of addiction. She has visited all over North and South America. Single mom to two beautiful children she has learned parenting is without a doubt the most rewarding job in the world. Currently the Outreach Director at Stodzy Internet Marketing.

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